|Children at Hlekweni Friends Training Centre, Zimbabwe|
Perhaps one of the most important gifts that religious traditions, including Quakerism, have to offer in our time is the possibility of an orientation towards the future that does not lead to irresponsible optimism or despair. In the Christian tradition this orientation is called hope.
When our first child was born, we held a 'welcoming' celebration for her with friends at our home, during which I read out this passage from the prophet Isaiah:
"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."For us, the birth of our daughter, as of every child, was a sign of hope for the future, not because of any expectation that the next generation will be any wiser or better than the last, but simply because her life was 'a new thing' – filled with utterly unpredictable potential for bringing beauty and joy and healing into the world.
Hope is not the same as optimism. It does not mean believing that things will inevitably improve or anticipating the sudden disappearance of all our problems. Hope is also possible, and necessary, alongside a clear perception of the consequences of our own destructiveness and the persistence of violence and injustice. But an attitude of hope means an openness to the future, recognising that the future is not fixed in a mechanical, unrelenting pattern, because it will result from the actions of innumerable people, all of whom are capable of unpredictable acts of creativity and generosity.
The Quaker movement was formed in a period when many people's expectations of the future had been crushed by political events. Many early Friends had been deeply committed to the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War. They lived through the failure of the Commonwealth government, Cromwell's dictatorship and finally the restoration of the monarchy. Friends did not respond to the failure of their hopes and the re-imposition of political and religious absolutism by armed resistance, nor did they simply submit to the new restrictions on religious freedom. Instead, almost uniquely among the nonconformist sects of the time, they sustained a persistent, public commitment to living the Truth they had encountered, despite systematic and intense state persecution.
Quakers at this time emphasised the power of 'testimony' – a life of utter integrity and faithfulness to God's purposes, to challenge and transform situations of untruth and injustice. They experienced the reality that living an authentic human life, and maintaining a genuine human community, is a political act.
The public and political role of early Quaker testimony – including actions that attracted intense persecution such as such as refusing to swear oaths or to accept social hierarchies, was to resist a culture of lies and oppression by truthfully naming social reality. As Rex Ambler describes it:
"Early Friends testified to the truth that had changed them by living their lives on the basis of that truth. The reality of their life (and of human life) shone through in their lives because they were open to that reality and lived in harmony with it. Lives lived in the truth would then resonate with how other people lived their lives, and more specifically with the deep sense within them that they were not living well, not living rightly. When Friends spoke honestly and truthfully to people, when they dealt with them as they really were, without pretence or projection, when they met violence with nonviolence and hatred with love, people knew at some level they were being confronted with the truth, whether they liked it or not."
Rex Ambler, 'The Prophetic Message of Early Friends (and how it can be interpreted today)'
This kind of influence may seem inadequate to the huge and urgent political challenges of our time. The influence of individuals and small groups on those around them is unlikely to save us from the long-term economic and ecological crises that we are preparing for ourselves and future generations. But however difficult the times our children will live through, there will be some people who practice sharing and reconciliation; some places where a more fully human life and community can flourish, because of the actions of people living now. This means that how we choose to live matters, it will shape the future for good or ill, and affect the lives of people we may never meet or know about. It means trusting in our own capacity for new beginnings, that we are not trapped by our past or confined by our habits and compulsions, that something new can happen in our own lives. Rather than despairing or giving way to fatalism, can we be ready to recognise and encourage these signs of hope within and around us, to perceive the times and places where the Spirit is acting to 'do a new thing'?