Inequality and Prayer

A post for Blog Action Day 2014

Statement on Inequality adopted by Meeting for Sufferings on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting [of the Society of Friends (Quakers)] – April 2014, minute MfS 2014 04 07

Quakers in Britain commit ourselves to action to redress the growing inequality of wealth and income in our country.

Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group.  Nor can wealth be true riches if it is based on unlimited personal enrichment and not shared for the good of all…

I have sometimes been asked whether I consider myself middle class. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer questions like this. Probably in fact by most measures of education and so on I am, but…

I grew up believing that being really middle class involved being brought up in a household with two parents, at least one of whom worked in a salaried occupation, owned their own home, and so on, and I did not. I was brought up by my mother, a distinctly un-salaried painter and sculptor, as a single parent, my parents having divorced when I was a toddler. We never lived in anything other than rented accommodation. Most of my contemporaries’ parents would probably not have considered us really “respectable”, and as far as I was concerned, right into my teens and twenties, respectability was the acid test for being middle class.

In the course of my life I have veered between near-poverty and being comfortably provided-for, between salaried and rather fragile freelance. Sometimes people would have thought of me as respectable, middle class; more often perhaps they would have wondered.

It is hard to write convincingly of class unless one is solidly and consciously a member of one class or another. At the very least, one is continually at risk of being called out as lacking in class consciousness, in Georg Lukács’ definition. And of course I am – I am quite lacking in class consciousness. It never occurs to me, from one week’s end to another.

So it is with huge relief that I read the second paragraph of the Statement on Inequality, “Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group…”

At last – here is a recognition of the sense that I have had since I was very young, that to measure the worth of anyone, or any group of people, by their money or status, or by their lack of money or status, is deeply, painfully wrong, intrinsically wrong in fact, in the way that murder or slavery are wrong in themselves, quite regardless of context or background. It doesn’t matter whether you are a politician dismissing disabled workers as a group as unworthy of the minimum wage, or a revolutionary socialist regarding a company CEO and his family as landfill for the mass graves merely because of their class, these measures of worth are an obscenity, an insult to being human.

The Statement on Inequality ends, having considered the economic violence and injustices arising from global economic crises:

However, action that aims merely to alleviate the worst effects of inequality is not enough. As we wrestle with the implications of our testimony to equality, Quakers feel called to act more radically to tackle the underlying causes.  This calling requires spiritual struggle and real practical change.  Our testimonies are moving us to work for very different ways of organising our common life.  We are also moving towards spending and saving our own resources in ways that are more compatible with our values, and away from uses that diminish the lives of our fellow human beings and the rich variety of life forms with which we share our planet.

As we long for a society of deep compassion and loving kindness in which we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’, we must witness to a different way of living, and help build the world anew.

It has long seemed to me that somehow these questions lead back to the spiritual. We cannot simply deal with the symptoms, the social, economic and political issues, and hope to solve them, as Communist and Fascist systems alike, the world over, showed us throughout the last century. We cannot place our hope in a theocratic model either, as the cruelty and injustice of such contemporary states demonstrates.

In the face of global injustice, welfare cuts, slavery, and human trafficking, it may seem pointless, insulting even, to pray. And yet – what would have been the end of World War II without the women and men who prayed in the churches and the concentration camps; how would the Iron Curtain have fallen without the prayers of the exiles, the prisoners, the refugees?

Quakers in Britain are asking ourselves at the moment what we are for. Our opposition to inequality, our long work for peace and social justice, differ at least potentially from mere political campaigning by their being rooted in our spiritual practice, and in the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. We do indeed need “to reaffirm the spirit of Quakerism in making real the “Kingdom of God on Earth”; perhaps we need also to relearn the words of Caroline Fox,

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

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