One of the striking things about early Friends is that they speak and act from a place of complete conviction. This deep conviction was a result of their experience. In the deep silence of their gathered meetings, they had ‘seen’ a new world order. Then, as today, the world was constructed on the human values of awarding privilege and status to wealth and power. Some current religious groups describe this as Babylon, or ‘the domination system’ – a world ruled by the power of wealth, influence, and ultimately naked aggression, locked into conspicuous consumption while others starve. Those who consider themselves to be pragmatists, or who believe themselves to possess a down to earth view of how things work will often call this the ‘real’ world… Quakers saw the world as God wishes it to be – not a world based on might and strength, but but on a long-suffering loving-kindness, imitating the cosmic patience which unceasingly offers its love to the world, wishes us no harm, is solicitous of our welfare, and wants nothing but infinite good.
Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life
This is one of the most difficult struggles for me. I find it so easy to be downcast in the face of the huge might of Babylon, especially when looked at up close and personal, as was unavoidable at the demonstration against the current Docklands arms fair, DSEi. But direct experience tells me that there is another way, and that its power is ultimately far greater than that of Babylon. It will “outlive all wrath and contention, and… weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.” (James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 19.12)
Hewitson, ibid., goes on to describe “a gathered meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool… where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.” It is this experience – as direct, and far more real, than my experience of the world of politics, money, and the repression of free speech – that gives me hope that there is something to be done, and that it is to be done in the silence of meeting for worship at least as much as on the streets of our cities.
George Fox, quoted in Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way: a Rediscovery, wrote:
All you that be in your own wisdom and in your own reason, you tell that silent waiting upon God is famine to you; it is a strange life to you to come to be silent, you must come into a new world. Now you must die in the silence, die from the wisdom, die from the knowledge, die from the reason, and die from the understanding… Here every spirit comes to have a particular satisfaction and quietness in his own mind, and here the weary come to have rest in Christ… Such shall find mercy of God when their minds are guided up into God and their spirits and minds are quieted in silent waiting upon God. In one half-hour they have more peace and satisfaction than they have had from all other teachers of the world in their lifetime.
It is only in the silence that we can lay down the incessant nattering of our own minds, and the incessant threats (for that is what they are) of Babylon. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus (6.12) described this as a spiritual battle, and so it is. It is impossible to fight “wealth, influence and… naked aggression” with more of the same. (A sign on one of the tents at the DSEi protest put the paradox eloquently: “Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity”!) We cannot argue with arguments, war against warfare, out-slander slander, and hope to achieve anything. Silence (and its prayer, and the truth revealed in it) is ultimately the only way to bring the power of God to bear on the world. The old phrase “the world, the flesh and the devil” is usually, bizarrely, taken to apply somehow to sexual sin, yet it is Babylon it describes. The world of “wealth, influence and… naked aggression”, the combination of adrenaline and testosterone that tempts one to fight it with its own weapons, and the appalling evil that results (consider the Russian revolution, and the life that ensued under Stalin…) from doing so, are far more accurately described by Peter Abelard’s contraction of Ephesians 2.1-3 than any expression of human warmth and comfort.
Of course, any, perhaps all of this, may involve suffering. In this, as in so much else, we have Christ as our example, and people like Dr Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mary Dyer as our companions. Sometimes I feel so protected, cocooned, by our relatively just and comfortable society that they seem far away; and yet maybe I am just seeing the velvet glove of Babylon, and failing to discern the iron fist.
There is so much more of silence to return to, so much more to be changed by. I don’t think it’s possible, for me at least, to second guess God. I have no idea where this is going to lead.