Good and evil

There are evil ideas and evil acts. Are there evil people?

For white British people, there is a short list of evil people most would agree on: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, each responsible for millions of deaths. Black British people might add some British colonialists: I might add Edward Colston as a named signifier for thousands of slavery profiteers.

Hitler believed that Jews were dangerous to Germany, and desired that the German people prosper. He did not see himself as the baddie. Yuval Noah Hariri, in “Sapiens,” said the Nazis were “humanists”. It is a blindness, an absence, to fail to see the suffering caused, to delight in or not to care about it. Evil is not a force but a lack, an inability either to see the humanity of the loathed group, or that all humanity is one.

Quakers say, “Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war.” What in me is like that? Where does my lack of care cause suffering?

I might say the campaign against trans rights in Britain is evil. Trans women are in women’s services unless there is a particular reason to exclude an individual. So to demand “single sex spaces”, and by that mean spaces from which trans women are rigorously purged, is evil, a chilling lack of regard for the needs or feelings of other human beings. To name this- “we want women’s spaces without trans women” might be disturbing to some, so there are a variety of ways to obscure the truth. The anti-trans campaigners might avoid all mention of trans women, and use the phrase “single sex services” as code. Or, they monster us: they seek to incite disgust, fear and aversion, saying, That person might not be a real trans woman, but a sexual predator. That trans woman retains their penis, and is a threat.

As with Hitler, an apparent positive desire, to protect [cis] women, is perverted into a project to hurt a minority. Yes, “Women are entitled to discuss their rights”, but should consider who their changes would affect, and use clear language. “Sex-based rights” means, “No Trans women”. They would use clear language, expressing that, if they did not on some level know that their demands are mean and destructive.

It is hard to see where to draw a distinction. The final extremity is death, but the start of it is disregard, a failure to see the value of the human person, or consider their reality. That leads to disgust, to street abuse and violence. Again it is a blindness or a lack: the anti-trans campaigner does not see the effect of their campaigning on their victims, or does not care. And many people who would happily call Nazis evil would blench at the idea anti-trans campaigners are evil.

Possibly when you see them arguing against trans rights, you would see a light of fanaticism in their eyes, an inability to consider other points of view or the pain of their victims, which might be a little worrying. And yet in their lives and interests beyond anti-trans campaigning- a love of the music of Schubert, perhaps- they seem entirely normal and reasonable.

Jesus said, let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. If evil is a lack, or a blind-spot, most people have blind spots. A belief that there are monsters, separate from the Good People, might lead to attempts to cast the monsters out, and find they are Jews, or trans women. I do not believe there are evil people. No-one is good but God alone.

Loving the Bible, as an atheist

I joined a Woodbrooke project, “Finding the Spirit in the Scriptures”. This is what I wanted to say:

First I should say, as an atheist, what is the God I do not believe in: I do not believe in “God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”. I believe in that of God in everyone, indeed in all of life- apes, fish, bacteria.

I do not believe in panentheism, God in things, but I know that people are taught in my culture to treat things, and even people, instrumentally- pick them up, use them, put them down, forget them. We deal only in surfaces. I know if you look at things through the eyes of Love, you see them more clearly: the thing in itself, its aesthetic and design beauty, its complexity, its value. You see the deep reality of the world below its surfaces, see the world in a grain of sand, and believing in God in things is a way into this experience.

I was baptised Scottish Episcopalian, taken to church throughout my childhood, and continued worshipping all my life. In 2001 I committed to Quakers and continued worshipping regularly. In 2009 I realised I no longer believed in God. It was a struggle. My partner took a robust line against nontheists- “Why should an atheist want to join a religious society?” A Friend answered that beautifully: “The question is not why we join, but why we stay”. But convincing H of that was a different matter.

In February 2010 I admitted to myself I did not believe in God. I did the Hoffman process, a personal growth workshop designed to split someone open and give them access to the inspiration of their subconscious, and, duly broken open, entered a church as a tourist: and was brought to my knees by the holiness of the place.

Mark: How has your relationship to the Bible changed over your life?

When I was 12 I got a Gideon New Testament with a reading scheme, read the New Testament in a year, in the front. So I did, several times. At University, I started reading the Daily Study Bible by William Barclay, and later read the Old Testament DSB. I also read the NT volumes of the Bible Speaks Today. I also read the Bible through, Jewish Bible and NT, in the Good News Bible and New International Version, and much of the New Revised Standard Version.

It was the moral underpinning of my homophobia. In Romans 1 Paul lists various horrible sins, including “men committed shameful acts with other men”, and, hating myself, desperate to “make a man” of myself and wanting to enforce this restrictive morality on the World, I used it to drive a couple from my church. I am ashamed of that. I would not do it now. Now, I would seek to prevent such a violation.

But it gives me some sympathy for others. The Methodist Church in England agreed to celebrate same sex marriages, and a Christian website covered this as if it was a bad thing. It claimed “traditionalists” feared being driven out of their churches- rather than calling them homophobes opposing the Church’s decision. I sympathise. I thought being a Christian made me a good person, because I believed in God and tried to do the right thing, and it was a shock to hear people thought it meant I had ridiculous beliefs and harmful, wrong views about morality.

I started by believing the anti-gay passages, then arguing with them, seeking out alternative interpretations of the Greek arsenokoitai and malakoi, and finally ignoring them. I feel quite entitled to reject bits of the Bible, including Deuteronomy 22:5.

However, even when I hate a verse, I seek out what good I may find in it. I dislike Nehemiah. The Jews have returned from exile in Babylon, and decide to live with their own ideas, without any tincture from foreigners. Nehemiah 13: 30 Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. I find this horrible. But- if they had not, the people would have been subsumed in the Persian then the Macedonian empires, and their distinctiveness would have been lost, as the Northern kingdom was subsumed in the Assyrian empire. So we would not be Christian. From that decision both great suffering and great blessing flow.

Mark: The Bible is a conversation we can join in. Some say the book of Jonah, where the King and people of Nineveh repent, is a direct answer to Nehemiah and the drive for purity. It says the Assyrians are God’s children.

Yes. Consider: Psalm 37:25: I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.

Ecclesiastes 7:15: In my vain life I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.

Both these verses are in three parts, with close parallels, and it seems to me Ecclesiastes is directly answering the Psalm.

The Bible is terribly misogynistic. Mary Magdalene goes to the grave on the first day of the week, and has a great realisation: “He is not here”. Jesus is in our hearts, in our memories, in how he has changed our lives. He will always be with us. But, how could a weak, irrational and emotional woman come to such a realisation? A man told her. Mark 16:5, “a young man, dressed in a white robe,” whom she does not recognise but who knows her and knows all about it. Luke 24:4, “Two men in dazzling clothes”. Matthew 28:2 uses male pronouns of “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven”.

Or Mary, Jesus’ mother. Luke tells us the archangel Gabriel appeared to her. For me, this woman, barely more than a girl, realises she is pregnant. Not being married, this is terrifying. Her sublime, noble reaction is, “All generations shall call me blessed”. And we do. She got it, all by herself. No angel required.

In the past year I have read John, and loved it. John 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them”, ie to us, and all Christians. We can be in God as Christ is in God. That of God in me is all my power, all my beauty, and I can live from it all the time. I find this tremendously exciting and spiritually convincing, and have shared it excitedly with anyone who will listen. This is the truth of the Bible, speaking to me.

And I have read about half of Isaiah, dutifully reading the Oxford Bible Commentary paragraphs on each short section; and got fed up with it. This perhaps revolted me the most:

Isaiah 3: 16 The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet;
the Lord will afflict with scabs
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.

At best, this is the prophet seeing the parlous state of Jerusalem, fearing for its inhabitants, knowing that rape is a weapon of war. But I can’t help seeing it differently, as the old man seeing young women glorying in being young women. He gets turned on but, knowing they are not sexually available to him, curses them, and gets self-righteous about it.

I want the experience of John, the new insight about the spiritual life that makes sense and speaks to me immediately and delights and inspires me and brings me on. I want to avoid the sense of revulsion I feel at that Isaiah passage. I will go back to the Bible. Perhaps Mark next, or Romans, probably without a commentary at least to start with. I don’t know. Perhaps I cannot find the glory without also seeing the darkness. All human life is here.

I am left with my favourite bits. When I was recovering from my self-hatred, Genesis 1:31 meant a lot to me: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That included me. Similarly psalm 139:12-13:

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvellously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

In Psalm 137 the Jews are taken off to Babylon as slaves, and feel the rage of the oppressed. They imagine smashing the heads of their oppressors’ babies. Accepting my true self made me aware of huge anger in me, and this psalm reassured me: if such rage was here, it was acceptable to God, and so might my own anger be. And so might I be.

I love the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail meets David, who is living as a bandit chieftain in the borderlands of the Philistines. “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal [her husband], and he died.” Abigail then marries David. It makes a mockery of the American Evangelical concept of “Biblical Womanhood”. And I am always reacting with or against thousands of years of reactions and interpretations of these stories.

My favourite Jesus quote is in Revelation 21:5: Behold, I have made all things new.

I love the desperate angry prayer of Job. He knows he is righteous, and demands of God how dare he treat him this way? 31:35-37:

O that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him.

I have prayed in desperation, “Oh God! What are you playing at!?

God states his glory- “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job repents in dust and ashes. But, being a shrewd, active man, he stops contemplating the injustice of the world and the incomprehensibility of God, and gets on with what he does best. That is how he becomes wealthy again, blessed with sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys, and also sons and daughters.

I have had my life changed, and I feel Jesus’ metaphor of being born again is appropriate: it really seems as painful as passing through a birth canal, and as weird as opening my eyes for the first time.

I want new favourite bits, more bits to love. What verses do you love in the Bible?

Recovering from internalised transphobia

Perhaps only the unexamined life is worth living. You are brought up by loving parents, you grow up, find a job and a partner, have children, contribute to your community, help bring up your grandchildren and perhaps meet your great-grandchildren before you die. Each life has heartache, puzzlement, difficulty and loss, but that would be a life well lived. I envy it because I have no children.

I wanted to do a meaning of life post. I wanted to articulate the value of my life, because it has value. My start was with the life I do not have. Communities can be oppressive, and can change so completely during a lifetime that someone in a strong supportive community at marriage could be unmoored by old age- I have both an intense desire to be Normal and resentment that I am not, and a desire to attack that Normal as illusory even for those who most approximate it. Starting writing helps me understand who I am, and find what is behind my conscious thought.

A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touched Jesus and her bleeding healed. Jesus turned, saw her, and said “Take heart, daughter: your faith has made you well”. Matthew does not mention it, but Luke and Mark say Jesus felt power go out of him. Someone explained this: a woman seen as unclean, so outcast, who had no business touching anyone, acts as if she is not outcast, and is healed of her outcast status.

No, that wasn’t how he explained it. That’s me explaining it in a way that omits what is the most important thing about it for me now: when he explained it, I felt a weight was lifted from me: I am that woman. I have outcast status. Come into my full humanity or power and I have it no longer.

In that moment I felt a weight lift from me. A day later I am trying to recapture the feeling. I want to make it permanent. Loving acceptance helps: then I was with people, now I am alone. I was on Zoom, but that counts.

This is a blog. I am allowed for my thoughts to be inchoate, to start typing, find my thoughts wandering, publish it anyway. To struggle towards what would be the first sentence of an article. To reassure myself that it is true, and I mean it, and bring myself to write it, and note the process:

The meaning of my life is recovering from internalised transphobia.

Or, possibly,

The meaning of my life is recovering from my ingrained sense of worthlessness, a lot of which is internalised transphobia.

If I can do this, see how I am doing this, and communicate it to others in such a way as they might see their own value, then my life has value. If I can do this, only a little, even so I do not fully step into my power, even though I tell nobody, no one sees, and no one else benefits,

my life has beauty and meaning and value simply because I exist. Everything that is, is holy, as William Blake says.

I am not sure I have that first sentence yet.

And, how does the story help anyone struggling with self-rejection? I don’t want to make a dogmatic statement about that, but a suggestion. There is a power of Love which loves and values you. Possibly if you are completely alone you can access that love within yourself and heal yourself. Possibly some other person will love you, and communicate that so it gets through to you. I am thinking of an observation a woman made, that changed my perception of myself for the better, and my friend was talking about that particular story and not particularly addressing me and I took what he said and applied it to me-

I am just getting more confused.
Take from this what you will.
Recovery from self-loathing is difficult.
Recovery from self-loathing is worthwhile.

Others have said things which I have seen the value in, but not seen the value in for me. Years ago a hypnotherapist told me to say “I am loved, loving and lovable”. I have only really accepted that intellectually. Periodically I get the phrase out and consider it.

I want to heal myself.
I want to heal everybody.

I saw two wise men, filmed, talking of wisdom, and I thought, I want to be the third there, talking equally with them. I wanted it more than anything.

Quakers and God

Do British Quakers believe in God? What might that mean?

Ours is an experiential faith. We have spiritual experiences which we share. They start as peak experiences, a moment of wonder, and become integrated into our daily lives. We develop language to communicate them to each other, and it appears they are similar for each person. They include a sense of presence in the moment when all the senses are heightened; a sense of the unity of all that is, and of being my own part of it; and a sense of being suffused by love, which some might call the love of God.

Then there are the spiritual experiences we have together. We know of the gathered meeting, where we are together in our spiritual experience, and of unity, where we come together to know what is right, what some call God’s loving purposes. Our worship is not meditation, but a common endeavour. It’s not like sitting in a waiting room. We know we may sometimes feel “angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold”, but the effort of- whatever it is that we do, in worship- is worthwhile.

If you attend Quaker Quest meetings, you will have heard the phrase “for me”, for Quakers have all sorts of opinions, and a wide range of disagreement, and I have the temerity here to speak “for us”. We share practices with quite complex rules, and experiences. Then we ask what is behind them, and disagree wildly.

Some of us believe in God almost as in the creed, or in the Christian concept of the trinity, or different ideas of God. Some of us, like me, are materialists. I believe I am an evolved creature in a random universe. I don’t know how life could come to be through non-living chemical processes but I believe that is in principle knowable. I don’t think consciousness is in itself spiritual, but a manifestation of the mammalian brain.

Our understandings of God are not hypotheses in the scientific sense, capable of making predictions or being proved wrong by evidence, but stories. They are stories created by some of the finest human minds, addressing common spiritual experiences, progressing from a God who demanded Abraham’s son as a sacrifice to a God who offered God’s own son to die for us.

It is my perception that British Quakers squabble less than we did over these beliefs. Some of us argued it was ridiculous for someone who did not believe in God to belong to a Religious Society. My Friend answered that: “The question is not why we join a religious society, but why we stay”. Now we find language to share the spiritual experiences, and I feel the explanations behind them- God, psychology, or Don’t Know, seem less important.

I was baptised Anglican, grew up reciting the creed without a qualm, and around 2009 slowly realised I no longer believed in that way. It felt like a great loss, and I was in slowly reducing denial for months. Just after I admitted to myself I do not believe in God I was broken open by a residential personal growth course. I went into a church as a tourist, to see the art, and a sense of its holiness brought me to my knees.

This was a difficult experience to fit into my understanding. I say: “I am inconsistent. I could only be consistent if I were inerrant”. I say, “I am rationally atheist and emotionally theist. I have a strong emotional relationship with the God I do not believe in.” I read philosophical ideas of how well humans might see the world as it really is- not well, it seems.

I know that unconscious processes in me can form poetry, so that it seems to come to me by inspiration. My being, this process taking in food, water, oxygen and ideas, is capable of more than I consciously understand, and it is tempting to call all that is greater than my own consciousness God. Quakers have talked of “that of God” in each person since the 1650s. Or I should abandon the word, because it means such different things to different people. Or I could use the word “God” honestly to talk with someone who believes in the Trinity, because we both mean things we cannot know.

In Quaker worship you may see the Living God. Insofar as those words can have meaning, I know they are true.

(Instant) Gratification

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I believe this. It is not just hollow consolation. I know, sometimes, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity”. Alastair Campbell gives one view of the Brexit conspiracy against the British people. I liked this discussion of the quote: Mychal Denzel Smith argues we have to do the work to bend it, and we have to define “justice”.

We were discussing the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5. They are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. I disagree with Paul’s contradiction between “the flesh” and “the spirit”. Possibly this comes from my culture. Paul may have been a dualist, believing we are material bodies and immaterial mind/spirit/soul, though he believed in the resurrection of the body. I am not, though I don’t know how much of my certainty comes from my personal experience of being human and how much comes from the cultural understandings I have imbibed. Opposing flesh and spirit leads to asceticism, where you only eat food you don’t like and see the world as ugly, grey and sinful rather than fruitful and beautiful.

I could parrot the words “sarx” and “pneuma”, even find their Greek spelling, but not say Paul “really” meant something I can live with. But the distinction I can live with came from Mary Linda’s group: ego and spirit. The Good in me produces love, joy, peace, etc. The Ego in me produces jealousy, anger, envy etc. And a lot of that seems to come from a desire for instant gratification.

Instant gratification is not all bad. Working in advice centres, I realised that I could, simply by listening sympathetically while people told their woes, make them feel better, and this made me feel really good. It was simply me, acting in accordance with my nature, achieving something I found valuable. But then at the Northern Concord TV/TS club a trans man began talking of his difficulties, and three of us leaned forward, in unison, with our sympathetic listening faces on, and I realised how much I got from such encounters.

Rosa Parks sitting down at the front of the bus can expect nothing like that. She knows she will face vituperation, contempt, and violence. If she resists at all that will be the excuse justifying unlimited violence against her. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year, and while it was a great step forward arguably the arc of history has not reached justice yet. All that walking, not using buses, was a sacrifice.

It is possible that seeking instant gratification, and planning for the future, inhabit different circuits within my neural structure. I can bring them into dialogue, and there often seems to be some sort of presiding intelligence which sees when instant gratification is possible, and not too costly, and when I should hold back or start laying foundations for gratification later. That needs me to believe in the possibility of gratification later, and people who have little experience of it can’t be expected to work towards it.

Ooh! σάρξ and πνεῦμα. There you go. A little fairly quick gratification for me.

I remember little of Habakkuk, but what I got from it when I read it was that God really does have some vast eternal plan, it just is taking longer than we might have hoped.

Pictures for a bit come from Yan Liben. It’s a new year, and I am looking back to the 7th century: he was a Tang dynasty artist and politician. We read these pictures right to left, rather than left to right.

Be still and cool

I awoke to a social media storm. The first thing I saw on facebook was, “Woke to find the Government has declared war on my existence. Stress, shaking, panic, fear.” Oh. What’s happened now? The Sunday Times’ main front page article was about trans. It said nothing new about the government’s plans on trans recognition, in the most obnoxious way.

I read the article, and wondered whether to blog about it, or go cycling before Meeting. I decided to blog about it, and share that blog, so I did, and then felt wound up. I needed to calm down before Meeting, and knew the passage: QFP 2:18.

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

Considering that was not enough, so I phoned a Friend. She knows a lot of the Bible. God challenges Job:

Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendour.
Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
and look on all who are proud, and abase them.
Look on all who are proud, and bring them low;
tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory.

Job, sitting on his ash heap, cannot do these things. So Job says, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. Then, he gets wealthy again, with sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and beautiful daughters. He is a bright, active man, and he does what works for him.

I still need to calm down. There is a lot to wind people up, these days: the deaths from the Pandemic, Brexit, the George Floyd demonstrations, and, for me in particular, JK Rowling’s statement and that Sunday Times article coming after Liz Truss’s statement. Others have been outraged about Miriam Margolyes. For years Donald Trump has been fomenting the outrage through Twitter, and it seems Boris Johnson is following the same route. So there were far-right demonstrators “defending statues”,

I find the source of the Fox quote, which is his letter to Lady Claypole, at p346 of Nickall’s edition of his Journal. I read it, before and during Meeting, and considered its predictions. “Looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it,” he says. Ain’t that the truth. Of course I knew “Be still and cool” before, but today it speaks to my condition in the clearest way. But- “Looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.”

A Beatles song comes to mind:

Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes?
The sun is out
The sky is blue
It’s beautiful
And so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes?

Saturday, my personal growth workshop was about Yin. Yang goes out, does stuff and achieves things, and Yin receives, notices what is, including what is inside me, what I feel. Jamie Catto says our education is far more for Yang than Yin. Mmm. So, “I awoke to a social media storm”. Well, why? Because the first thing I did on awakening, before showering, dressing or breakfast, was to scroll facebook. One answer would be to spend less time on facebook. However, I want my voice to be heard. I shared about JK Rowling, and had 1,163 views of it on the post’s first day. I had a lot of social media love. It is nothing compared to in person friendship or affection, but it can be a delight- “Love the way you write. Hate the way you hurt,” said one person, once.

So, my voice is calling for peace, about Rowling and the Sunday Times. I feel this is worthwhile, and may even be worth the costs of “looking down at distraction”, in order to coax others from it. I might find other ways for my voice to be heard.

I am still with Victorian genre painters. Here’s George Goodwin Kilburne:

A Christian view of trans

Christian theology supports trans people and transition unequivocally. The Bible recognises and values trans people. As Peterson Toscano said, a man carrying a water jar was doing women’s work, which was beyond shameful for a man in that culture- she must have been trans.

The Bible values bodies as good. God created humanity in God’s image, and everything God had made was very good. Male and female God made me! God knitted me together in my mother’s womb- I am fearfully and wonderfully made. And after my transition I was freed to see my body as beautiful and wonderful, not inadequate as I thought before. As God does not have a body, whether like in the Sistine Chapel with a grey beard and pink shirt or otherwise, the image is of our nature- like God, we are loving, creative, powerful and beautiful. It is that nature, made in God’s image, that drives us to transition.

Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch. Eunuchs were condemned in the old testament, but not in the new dispensation of Christ.

Jesus identifies with the lowly and downtrodden: whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. When the Church spits hate, such as the Pope inveighing against “gender theory, which does not recognise the order of creation” calling it as bad as the use of nuclear weapons, he continues the oppression of the strong against the weak that Christ condemned. Francis was pleasing his conservative followers then, the modern equivalent of the scribes and pharisees who Jesus said locked people out of the Kingdom of Heaven. For them, morality is a set of rules, to be used to condemn others. However the Kingdom of Heaven is completely different: we have one Father, who is in Heaven, and one teacher, one instructor, who is the Christ. Jesus will send the Teacher, the Holy Spirit, who will be in us.

You know who you are and what is right because Christ has sent Christ’s spirit to be in you. Your conviction that your gender is not that assigned, your conviction that you are of the other gender, which you know despite all denial, which eventually you have the courage to assert despite all the mockery and hostility others rain down on you, comes from Christ, who says, In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!

Paul confirms this: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. In Acts, we read of the holy spirit coming on all kinds of people. Peter’s epistle predicts the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts– which is the moment you commit to transition, and fully expressing who you are.

The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. That is, the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, here, present, now, when we follow the Spirit of Christ within. You know your transition is right through the Spirit of Christ leading you.

This post is not written for atheists. If you do not value the Bible, it will not convince you that God leads you to freedom through transition. You know that transition is good for other reasons. Rather I write for people when the Bible has been used to condemn them, for that is a false use of the Bible. The words of Jesus within us confirm that we are right to transition.

Unity and Diversity

Christianity is filled with dialectic, truths held in tension. So we worship the transcendent God in the immanent Christ, one God in three Persons, Jesus is human and divine, faith is personal and lived out corporately, the Church is a gift of grace and a human institution, the Church transcends culture yet comes alive within culture.

And humanity is all the same, created in the image of God, yet there are differences of culture, faith, tradition, gifts, personality and character. Acts, and Paul’s letters, wrestle with how to live with our differences. At best, we enjoy belonging and rootedness, at worst Balkanisation. Debating whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity should be circumcised or obey the Jewish Law, the apostles and elders commanded only to abstain from meat offered to idols, which later Paul said was forbidden out of practicality not principle. At Pentecost people from all the diaspora came together and heard the Word, each in their own language. Christ speaks to me in my individuality, and binds us into unity. Here there is no Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, Quaker Anglican Methodist or Catholic, but Christ is all and in all.

The concept of race remains as it is a power performance. Power colonises human spaces, and dictates who belongs and who is marginalised. Why is the Church, the body of Christ in which all of us are one, racialised? If Quakers are so strong for Equality, a central part of our testimony and action, why are we so white? This post is part an account and part my response to Prof. Anthony Reddie‘s talk to the Quaker Diversity and Inclusion Gathering. It is filtered through me, a white aspiring ally.

Prof. Reddie has written the book Theologising Brexit: a liberationist and postcolonial critique. Brexit is about what it means to be British. Everyone is tribal, yet the social justice tradition refutes English nationalism. Half of Methodists were Leave voters, Quakers overwhelmingly remain, and the tradition of our denominations inscribes whiteness as normality. When Reddie was ten, he was made to do the Bible reading on Pentecost, and despite intensive coaching finding himself the sole representative of Black people stumbled over the names: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia… I did that reading too, as a child, but I was only standing up for myself, a white amongst whites.

At the time of Pentecost, skin colour was not important, though cultural differences were: the construct of “Race” is modern, part of a biological hierarchy, the product of Empire where Britons nobly took up the White Man’s Burden, and took away South African diamonds.

We are the same, and we are different, and Christians can emphasise one or the other. Who is like me? Everyone and no-one. We are all human, and all have different gifts and experiences. Reddie asked us to position ourselves on a spectrum from emphasising unity to emphasising diversity, and said no-one could be in the middle as reconciling the two was hard for humans. We came out more for diversity.

Reddie said Patriarchy positions women’s bodies. When women watch male strippers, they giggle. Men watching women strip do not laugh. Their male gaze is about power and penetration, constructing women’s bodies. In the same way white is power, normality, not needing to be think about, and Black is Other. The Black person makes a decision about how it is to be enfleshed as black. But the Church was meant to be different. Paul reframed belonging as a relationship, where faith in Christ, rather than blood or kinship, meant we belong. We should embrace our differences and celebrate them, but we use them for power.

In school, a white boy bit him to see if his blood was a different colour, yet the Black people were seen as the savages.

He himself belongs to groups that affirm him. I take this as a confession: he is not immune. His suburb is superior. And at worst, we fight based on these things.

Quakers, he says, are tolerant, kind and affirming. We know that there is power and some are marginalised, yet we talk of our Quaker tradition, opposing slavery, testifying to Equality in our lives and witness, so that it is hard to talk of Quaker racism yet we are the whitest tradition in Britain. We are just as exclusive, but in ways that are more difficult to challenge- for white Quakers, more difficult to see.

So conversation is a good thing, where we speak from experience. White patriarchy gives us crumbs, and we fight over them. We must rise above the zero-sum game. We need to be allies. There is systemic and structural oppression of almost all. We worship a generous God, a God of Abundance, and people of faith should be generous with each other.

It seems to me that the Friend who later shared the Jo Cox quote- the one everyone knows, “We have more in common than that which divides us”- was whistling in the wind, attempting to escape the tension by leaping to one side of it. We should not be fighting, certainly not oppressing, but when we seek to meet each other, to encounter and really see each other, the differences are as obvious as the similarities.

Quaker unity

The idea of Unity is at the heart of Quakerism, yet we rarely try to define it. Instead we use the word as if we all know what it means. There are about seventy uses of the word in Quaker Faith and Practice, and from the context of each we might gain an idea of it.

In the Bible, NRSV, it appears seven times:

Psalm 133
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.

Here unity is in our common life, and it makes that life bright and beautiful. It is God’s anointing, and life-giving water.

1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

Ephesians 4.11-13 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

I read this as having maturity, the same faith and knowledge that Christ had, which will bind us together in unity. If we are in touch with what Quakers call the Inner Light, as Jesus was, we will live in unity together.

It was a Quaker word from the beginning. Edward Burrough wrote in 1662 of making decisions in love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity. All these words are aspects of one way of relating. Isaac Penington might find unity with anyone he meets, when he found the spirit and life in them. Francis Howgill repeatedly echoed the new testament in his description of worship, including 1 Peter: We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. George Fox wrote of our “unity in the Spirit” and Margaret Fell of “peace, love and unity,” both to people outside the new movement: it is a common English word, and Christians would understand it just as they understood Christian love. For William Penn, when someone ministered in meeting the rest, recognising the leadings of Christ, would adhere with a firm unity. Elizabeth Fry feared the snare of spiritual pride in the sense of religious unity.

Unity is a state of our being in eternity: Job Scott wrote of everlasting unity shortly before his death; we are in unity with the living and the dead. And unity is a process. We continually achieve it, in our meetings for worship as they gather, (when two or three gather together I am with them) and our meetings for worship for business. It is not in words and doctrines: We have sought unity through agreement in doctrines and institutions; and the track of church history, like some new road through the desert, is strewn with the parched skeletons of our failures. For John Punshon, we might find it with Methodists in communion- I am like you, and we share one faith in God- though Friends might disapprove, or counsel against. It is from God, and it is part of our wordless human, primate, mammalian way of being with each other when our words and our conflict fall away. Our differences are always present. How we deal with those differences is our continuing work, with God’s help. Iain Law feared breaking unity and his friendships if he ministered of his experiences in his meeting.

In business meeting we sometimes all join together in a certainty of immediate rightness and sometimes one will acquiesce in the discernment of their Friends, after they have been heard. As a worshipping community, particularly in our local and area meetings, we have a continuing responsibility to nurture the soil in which unity may be found. John Woolman found Quaker work best done with the discerned assent of the Meeting.  The Yearly Meeting struggled to find unity on sexuality in 1994, and found it sixteen years later. There is unity in the search and the struggle together.

In the struggle to find unity, in finding the beauty of what one other has found and valued, we may grow. One Friend’s boldness leads us on. We might seek a feeling of safety from uniformity of outward practices and observations, or from creeds, but that is not true unity, which we find in Jesus.

Our differences persist, though mostly unexpressed, so in considering membership we need trust and a sense we are safe enough, for the moment. Rufus Jones wrote of the “hidden seed of God”, and for me our current exploration of privilege becomes relevant: we have differences of culture and of personality, and worldly ways of enforcing hierarchy come naturally and mostly unconsciously to us. We recognise we are at different stages along the way. We don’t require great achievement but sincerity of purpose. Boundaries are sketchy, because they cannot be defined beforehand in words but must be known in relationship in the moment: there are broad principles of belief and conduct on which unity is essential… even though precise agreement on every point is not required. Thomas Story wrote, The unity of Christians never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in Christian love only.

Unity, and the sense of the presence of God, is our experience outside meeting: Anne Hosking found it kissing her children, and from the earliest days of Christianity we might find it in coitus. It is in our shared humanity- with everyone- so might be found in our most painful experiences such as bereavement.

Janet Scott wrote, This is the truth which we know and try to live … that every person is capable of response to the divine Spirit; that this Spirit, or Light, or God reaches out to each one directly and freely; that if we follow the leadings of this Spirit faithfully we are led out of sin into unity with the divine will; that this unity leads us into love of and care for all humankind, who are our kin; that what the Spirit shows us is living truth which cannot be fettered by words.

Two chapter headings include the word. Chapter 25 is Unity of Creation, arguing that All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. And, This is a marvellous world, full of beauty and splendour; it is also an unrelenting and savage world, and we are not the only living things prone to dominate if given the chance. In our fumbling, chaotic way, we do also make gardens, irrigate the desert, fly to the moon and compose symphonies. There is a unity of the human species, and of the biosphere.

Chapter 27 is Unity and Diversity. God’s truth is too wide for one person, or even perhaps one religion. John Woolman found it among the “Indians”, and Robert Barclay in the Turks. Henry Hodgkin, a Quaker missionary, wrote in 1933 I believe that God’s best for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible to me. I recognise [a change] to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no one better way, and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest himself in the world. We might also find truth among other Christians, for example in Thomas Merton’s contemplative prayer, but these things may be too close to us, and QFP does not say this. We value the Bible, and the Spirit which is above it. We have our reasons for rejecting specific consecrated sacraments, and ordained ministry.