Let the Spirit guide you!

Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.  Zechariah 4:6

For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

More than ever the world needs people who are inspired, guided, and empowered by the spirit of the one God who is wise and compassionate.

In response to terrorist attacks, whether in London, Manchester, Berlin or Kabul, we need to concentrate on spreading compassion for those who are injured, for the families and friends of those who are killed, and – most importantly – for those, mostly young men, who are suffering so much that they may be driven to commit barbarous acts of violence.

It is of course tempting to succumb to and spread hatred of the perpetrators of terrorist killings and of the people whom they purport to represent. Spreading hatred will only make matters worse, hastening the descent into a spiral of violence. Hatred is blind and stupid. One person’s response to the latest terrorist outrage in London has been to appeal for Britain to leave the EU altogether as soon as possible. Where’s the connection between Islamist terrorism and Britain’s membership of the EU?

Hatred drives people apart when what we need is an inclusive and cohesive society – within Britain, throughout Europe, and ultimately throughout the world, though that could be a long time in coming.

There seem to be two objects of hatred amongst many British people at this time: Muslims and the EU. Individual Muslims cannot be held responsible for Islamist terrorism any more than individual Christians can be held responsible for the crusades. Islam and Christianity, along with most of the world’s faiths, share commitment to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Or: “Do as you would be done by.”

I believe we are also guided at a deep level by the same spirit, the spirit of the God of Abraham, the fearless spirit of love and compassion. This is a spirit of power – not of military power or power over other people, but of the power of love, power which is shared with other people. It is the power of active nonviolence, for which my friend Martin Arnold has coined the term “Gütekraft”, i.e. goodness-force or goodness-power. Mohandas Gandhi called it Satyagraha.

This fearless spirit of love and compassion is neither blind nor stupid, but of a sound mind. It does not imagine that Jews are responsible for infectious diseases, that Muslims are responsible for Islamist terrorism, or that the EU can be blamed for all the ills of British society. It sees that many people are excluded from society by poverty. It sees that, whilst the EU is a deeply flawed institution, it has in many ways been a force for peace, within its borders at least. The problem is not the EU as such, but rather austerity and other economic policies which have widened the gap between rich and poor. This gap is much more obvious in Britain than in Germany. The existence of food banks is a major indictment of British society. I’m not aware of any in Germany.

I’m praying for a miracle next Thursday. I find it hard to understand how anyone in their right mind, who seeks peace and justice for all, would vote Tory. Only a Labour government would seriously tackle inequality, negotiate a “soft” Brexit, and work together with other governments worldwide to build peace and combat climate change.

Given the electoral system in Britain, this doesn’t mean that you should necessarily vote Labour. You should use your vote to ensure, if possible, that your next MP is not a Tory. This means voting for the candidate of whichever party has the best chance of beating the Tory candidate. He/she may be Labour, Lib Dem, Green or SNP. The Guardian has published a tactical voting guide for those who live in constituencies where tactical voting could make all the difference. You may want to look at it.

But whatever you do, let the Spirit guide you!

What sustains you?

Man must not depend on bread alone to sustain him, but on everything that the Lord says.

Deuteronomy 8:3

There is a power, a force for good – a “higher power”, if you like – which I choose to call God or the Spirit. This is what sustains me.

I encounter this power as the “fire within” or a “still, small voice” during a gathered Quaker meeting for worship, whenever I turn to God in prayer, during a walk in the countryside, whilst circle dancing, or during a deep and “meaningful” conversation with friends.

Two Quaker friends came to visit a few days ago. Neithard gave the annual Richard Cary Lecture at the German Quaker yearly meeting a couple of years ago. I missed hearing the lecture because I wasn’t at the yearly meeting. And I haven’t got around to reading it. I should do so, if I can lay my hands on a copy. Neithard reminded my wife and me of two stories which he told during the lecture.

I have heard one of the stories before. It goes something like this: A native American elder tells his grandson that it sometimes feels to him as if there were two wolves fighting inside him. One wolf is good and loving and the other is evil and hateful. His grandson anxiously asks which wolf wins. The elder tells him that the wolf whom he feeds wins the battle.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” We can each of us choose to feed the greedy, fearful and hateful wolf within us by dwelling on bitter and resentful thoughts. Or we can let go of those thoughts and feed the loving and caring wolf within us instead.

The other “story” was related to the question as to whether a glass is half-full or half-empty. I believe Neithard actually gave a demonstration during his lecture of what happens when the same amount of water is poured into three glasses: a large glass, a glass half the size and an even smaller glass. When the water is poured into the large glass, the glass is half-full (or half-empty). The same amount of water just about fills the medium sized glass. When poured into the smallest glass, the glass overflows.

It seems to me that our Western consumerist culture (which worships Mammon rather than the God of Abraham) encourages us to focus on what we are lacking, as if our lives were half-empty. I am more inclined to give thanks that my cup overflows!

It is all a question of perspective. People let us down all the time (usually unintentionally, I believe). We can choose to focus on their failure to be as loving towards us as we might have reason to expect. This is likely to lead us to the conclusion that the friends or colleagues who let us down don’t really like us. Or we can accept the human failings of our friends and colleagues without jumping to such conclusions.

I realise that it’s easy for me to say this, having been blessed with loving friends throughout most of my life. In the world of work – even within church organisations – colleagues can indeed be intentionally malicious. So I guess one has to be realistic and not wear rose-tinted spectacles too much of the time.

There is evil in the world. And we need to take up spiritual weapons to overcome it. So we need the sustenance which we gain from every encounter with the loving God, who will rule our hearts, if that is what we choose.

Loving our Enemies

Have you tried loving your enemies? It isn’t easy. An enemy is someone who hates you, makes you suffer, hurts you callously.

My natural reaction to someone who’s hurting me is to fight back or to run away – fight or flight. And my natural reaction to someone who hates me is to hate them back.

I’m usually – not always – able to curb my tendency to fight back. I am, after all, a pacifist, supposedly committed to nonviolence. It becomes difficult to live with myself, when I hurt someone deliberately. I also believe that when I hurt someone deliberately I do more damage to my own soul than I do to them.

The alternative is to flee, to run away – or walk away, to leave the room, to leave the relationship. But that is invariably also a form of violence.

There is another alternative, another way: to stand one’s ground as lovingly as one possibly can. We can only truly do this, if we are grounded in love. Otherwise, standing one’s ground can easily become another way of fighting back. If we are to stand our ground lovingly, we must love our enemies.

And the first step towards loving an enemy, is to refuse to hate them – even when they hate us – or seem to. In response to hatred we choose to love. We choose to do what seems to be impossible: to love an enemy and to do good to someone who’s hurting us.

Jesus did this, and if we’re serious about following Jesus we should do this too. Never mind how difficult or even impossible it may seem.

Love comes with practice.

Jean Goss had to practise love in a prisoner of war camp near Lübeck during the Second World War. He had killed a great many German soldiers when he and his comrades were holding the German army back whilst allied soldiers were being evacuated from Dunkirk. After he had been fighting non-stop for five days and nights, in the early hours of Easter Day, Jean experienced an epiphany. He saw that all the soldiers, Germans as well as French, had been created by God and were loved by God, and that God just wanted all these human beings to love each other and to be happy. That night Jean learnt that his mission was to pass this message on to all the human beings who were fighting each other.

Soon after this exhilarating encounter with God, Jean – along with many others – was captured. He spent more than three years in the POW camp near Lübeck. There he tried to love not only his fellow prisoners of war but also the German officers who ran the camp. He asked his fellow prisoners to tell him, whenever they observed that he wasn’t being loving. His loving actions in difficult situations got him into serious trouble more than once. In a POW camp, serious trouble meant that you could easily be killed.

In one of these difficult situations, after some discussion with a Marxist fellow prisoner, Jean decided to go to the camp commandant and tell him that he would take the blame for what was going wrong. The commandant cried out, “No, not you! Go away! You can’t do that!” and chose to take the responsibility upon himself. He was taken away by military police two days later.

Seven or eight other prisoners joined Jean in what he was doing – asking others to challenge them, if they weren’t being loving in a certain situation. This transformed the camp to such an extent that prisoners from other camps asked what was going on. Jean’s reply was: “We try to love, as Christ has loved us.”

Just staying out of things and doing nothing to alleviate suffering or put an end to injustice is not loving. Intervention is necessary. Jean took the risk of intervening in a serious conflict and very nearly lost his life. He was beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death. When he was about to be executed, Jean told the camp commandant that he felt joy at the prospect of being united with the God of love, and that this God also loved the camp commandant. As he was speaking to the commandant, Jean was able to love him with all his strength and from the bottom of his heart. The officer clearly sensed this. He laid his revolver aside and refused to carry out the execution.

Many years later, in 1985, Jean wrote to his wife, Hildegard (Goss-Mayr), about this episode:

“You know, before that I had tried to love the Germans, the officers who were running the camp. But it wasn’t until I was being beaten and tortured that I really began to love them. That released within me an incredible, a most extraordinary love. And, look! It was at that moment that I understood that it isn’t me who loves. It is HE, Jesus Christ, who loves in me!

“If this love is so strong that it can convert even a Nazi, an enemy, then, I said to myself, it is the truly revolutionary power which can make people and the world new again.”

Footnote: Jean Goss’ experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war are recounted by Hildegard Goss-Mayr in her book, “Wie Feinde Freunde Werden: Mein Leben mit Jean Goss für Gewaltlosigkeit, Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung”, published by Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau, in 1996.

Kindness

This morning I read a short poem by the 14th century poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use on their tender self

and others.”

We need to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. How else can we love our neighbours as ourselves?

Jesus tells his disciples to “love one another, as I have loved you”. And he tells us to love our enemies as well. Somewhere in the Old Testament we are told “If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink.” We are to be kind to our enemies as well as to our friends.

We need to be sensitive to each other’s needs. If we see that someone is thirsty, we can give them something to drink. If we see that they are hungry, we can give them something to eat. If we see that someone is struggling under a heavy burden, we can try to carry a share of the burden or provide support in some way. We should, at the very least, avoid adding to their burden.

As well as giving to our neighbours, we need to receive what they have to give us. Healthy relationships depend on give and take on both sides. I’m reminded of the chorus, or it might just be the first verse, of a song which I have often joined in singing at ecumenical events or on the odd occasions when I’ve attended an Anglican church service:

Brother, sister, let me serve you

Let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I may have the grace to

Let you be my servant too.

There is an ancient story told in various parts of Asia – you may well know it – about heaven and hell. In hell a large number of people are sitting around a table laden with food, but they are all starving, because the spoons that they each have are too long for them to be able to feed themselves. In heaven, the situation is virtually identical: people sitting around a table laden with plentiful food. They even have the same long-handled spoons. The only difference is that the people are feeding each other. No-one is going hungry. And everyone is having a great party!

So let us be kind to one another. Let us persist in being kind even to those who hurt us. Perhaps they will, given time, be kind to us in return. If not, no harm is done by our being kind to them. And it may be that those who hurt us are themselves most in need of kindness. We also hurt each other unintentionally, due to a lack of sensitivity or a failure in communication. We need then to forgive one another and accept forgiveness from one another. We need to be able to forgive and to recognise our own need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of kindness not only towards the person who has hurt us, but also an act of kindness towards ourselves. Harbouring bitterness or a grudge seriously damages our spiritual health. On the other hand, few things do more for our spiritual health than being kind to one another. So let’s drop the knife!

Peace

“I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived

in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

George Fox

 

Peace is about people living in right relationship with each other and with the planet. Peace is about justice and wellbeing for everyone. No individual can live in peace, unless the whole community is at peace.

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Bible, encompasses the wellbeing of the whole community. Shalom is characterised by just and peaceful relationships.

“Pax”, peace imposed by force, is not peace at all. It may be better than open warfare, but it serves to perpetuate systems of injustice.

During the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire Jesus challenged unjust laws which allowed a soldier to compel a peasant to carry his pack, a landowner to take the cloak of someone who was unable to pay a debt, or the master of a house to humiliate a servant by hitting him across the face with the back of his hand. Walter Wink has described how Jesus advocated imaginative forms of nonviolent action as a way of overcoming the violence of unjust laws and customs: carrying a soldier’s pack beyond the one-mile limit, giving the landowner one’s shirt as well as one’s cloak, turning the other cheek to the master of the house.

Jesus wasn’t advocating meek submission. He was encouraging poor folk to harness the power of active nonviolence, to stand up for themselves whilst at the same time demonstrating goodwill towards their oppressors. He told his followers: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you and spitefully use you.”

Martin Arnold, a retired German protestant pastor, has coined the term Guetekraft for the power of active nonviolence, the power of goodness. In four volumes Martin explains how Guetekraft, “goodness-power”, works – even against a ruthless dictator. Martin’s books are the fruit of research into the life and works of three practitioners of nonviolence who have successfully employed Guetekraft: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Bart de Ligt.

It is because Guetekraft is powerful, that we do not need to resort to armed violence, which is invariably counterproductive, as Holly Near points out in the chorus of her song, “Foolish Notion”: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? What a foolish notion that war is called devotion, when the greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”

If we live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as George Fox did, we will not be persuaded to join an army, however just their cause may seem to be.

Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence breeds hatred and further violence.

On the other hand, peace grows from the seeds of peace. Small gestures of goodwill begin the creation of a climate of trust in which antagonists can eventually cooperate to dismantle systems of injustice. It may be a long and painful process, but it is far more likely than military action to bear the fruits of peace.

Key to the way in which Guetekraft works is the willingness to accept the costs of engaging in nonviolent action rather than do violence to one’s opponent. Peace warriors may sometimes be called upon to make the greatest sacrifice as Jesus did. Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer who was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, comes to my mind.

Millions of soldiers died in the First World War. What a fruitless undertaking!

When he was dying, Jesus prayed for those who tortured him. He is the Christ within us, the life and power in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus told his disciples: “My peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives peace do I give you my peace.”

This war-torn world of ours is very much in need of peace – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Ukraine, and in northern Iraq.

Britain is in need of peace too. A society in which significant numbers of people have to go to food banks to get enough to eat is not a peaceful one. And Britain’s possession of weapons of mass destruction makes the world more dangerous and less peaceful.

The world is in need of the peace that Jesus gives. We are called as individuals to be peacemakers. And we are called as communities of faith to be a force for peace in the world.

It is hardly surprising that we have got into the habit of thinking that life is a right to be defended. But we need to think of life, like peace, as a gift to be shared.

There are Quakers serving with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I know of a Friend serving with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. And there are Quakers serving in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq.

By no means all of us are called to this kind of service. There is much that we can do to foster peaceful community relations wherever we happen to live. And we can play our part in the peace campaigning and advocacy work of our faith community. When we join together with other faith communities and harness the power of goodness, we will become a force to be reckoned with.

Love

“Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”

This quotation from William Penn appears at the beginning of a chapter of “Quaker Faith and Practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.”

Learning to love is most definitely a question of learning by doing. I have found reading helpful, e.g. “The Road Less Travelled” by Scott Peck, but it is no substitute for actually loving another person.

Love is not just having a nice warm feeling towards someone or wanting to be with them. Love is about being sensitive to another person’s needs and desires and going out of our way to help them to be happy. And we can only begin to do that by paying attention to our own spiritual growth. We are not going to help anyone else become any happier, if we ourselves are miserable for much of the time.

But it’s not much good pretending to be cheerful. We need to find the deep and abiding joy which comes with doing what love requires of us, whatever the circumstances and however much it might cost us.

One of my all-time favourite quotes is, of course, by Thomas Merton. If I’ve quoted it before, it’s worth quoting again:

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones.”

If you want to love without suffering, don’t even bother to try. I have often heard these lines by William Blake quoted in Quaker meetings for worship:

It is right it should be so;

Man was made for Joy & Woe;

And when this we rightly know

Thro’ the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

Suffering is a fact of life. Love, joy and peace are not to be found through avoiding suffering. They are the gifts of a loving God to anyone who chooses to live life to the full and drink the cup that is flowing over.

When we learn to love, we become the agents of God who becomes human when humans become godlike. Jesus is the supreme example. When Christ dwells within us and we “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war” (George Fox), then we too will become patterns and examples and will “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (George Fox).

It may seem that God causes suffering. Maybe He/She does. I don’t know. What I do know, is that God loves each and every one of us. A good few years ago, when I was taking part in a group therapy session, the message that was coming through to me was: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” In the knowledge that we are loved, we become capable of loving others, so that we can tell them “I love you, because I love you, because I love you.” And now and then we catch a glimpse of the God within them, even though they may not yet see this themselves.

Where is the Palestinian Mandela?

It has been reported that a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, was shot dead yesterday by an Israeli sniper whilst walking near his school in Jalazun, a refugee camp north of Ramallah.

The boy’s father said that he was shot by an Israeli soldier from a watchtower in nearby Bet El. “He was hit directly in the back, and there were no clashes in the area.”

“Clashes” usually take the form of stone-throwing by Palestinian youths, which is met with tear-gas and rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israel Defence Forces. Perhaps the boy had been involved in “clashes” in the recent past and was singled out by the sniper. His father said that “Israeli soldiers target youths and kill them, in order to amuse themselves”.

Perhaps the soldier who killed Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi wanted to avenge the death of an Israeli soldier who was stabbed by a Palestinian whilst sleeping on a bus a week or so ago.

Will Wajih Wajdi’s brothers now seek revenge? It is unlikely that anyone will be tried for his murder. Israeli soldiers literally get away with murder, as we have seen in the case of a young Palestinian who was shot dead with a tear-gas canister at very close range two years ago. The soldier who fired the tear-gas canister out of the back of a vehicle claimed that he couldn’t see the young man and has recently been acquitted in court.

I can’t condone Palestinian relatives of murder victims taking revenge on Israeli soldiers, who are mostly young conscripts. But it is understandable that they should want to do so. It is perhaps also understandable that young Israelis should want to avenge the death of a comrade.

So where will it all end? Jesus said, as he was being arrested, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I think it was Gandhi who said that “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” would leave everyone blind and toothless.

Jesus had the answer. He advised his listeners, who were suffering under the Roman occupation, to turn the other cheek, to go an extra mile, and to give their shirt as well, when their coat was taken from them.

Walter Wink has explained how each of these actions would have been a form of nonviolent resistance. Roman legionaries, for example, were allowed to force a local peasant to carry their pack for one mile only. If the peasant were to continue to carry the pack for more than a mile, the soldier could get into trouble. I can imagine a soldier pleading with a peasant to give him his pack back. The soldier might begin to question whether it is right and just for him to demand that a peasant carry his pack in the first place. He might even begin to question the legitimacy of the occupation.

Until the time of Constantine Christians were forbidden to serve in the army. If a soldier became a Christian, he had to leave the army. The three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren) all sought to revive the discipleship of the early Christian Church. They all promote active nonviolence as the way to overcome injustice and oppression.

In Palestine today it isn’t only Christians who are advocating nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Muslims are advocating this too.

Sometimes people ask: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? Well, maybe there are thousands of Palestinian Mandelas. Most of them are probably in Israeli jails. And some of them have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.