Composting the Covenant: talking about Quaker faith and sustainability

At a gathering at Woodbrooke over three days in June 2016, sixteen Friends explored how our faith relates to ecology and sustainability. Prepared contributions included discussion papers, poetry, film clips, slideshows and experiential and creative activities. We reflected at length in worship-sharing and discussion. The various contributions, other resources, flipcharts and notes – can be accessed here.

We distilled three main themes – each of these is a dimension of our eco-spirituality:

  1. Communion and community – our experience of and commitment to connection with people, other living beings, and the whole universe.
  2. Telling our stories – including our history and vision, the ways we’ve engaged with challenges, the way we articulate our values, our experience of our own darkness and of transformation.
  3. Action/change agency – including our commitment to self-change, our practices and processes for discernment and support in our witness, and our principles for action as a faith community.

People find different ways into ecospirituality. Some start with connection, some with vision or narrative, some with action. But these are inseparable and mutually entwined paths. There are distinctive Quaker approaches to each (see figure below).

Quaker approaches to sustainability

We draw on our corporate roots in Christianity and the witness of early Friends, as well as our personal backgrounds in a variety of religious and secular traditions. We find resonance between the writings of George Fox and others in the Quaker tradition, and our own experiences of God’s presence in all creation, in the web of life and in the cosmos. We also find many sources of new light, from the values and cultures of indigenous peoples to the insights and practices of movements such as the Work that Reconnects.

Friends have a well-developed witness in our approach to the spiritual life, to transformation (standing still in the Light, letting it show us our darkness and bring us to new life) to human relationship (answering that of God in everyone) and to community (setting aside personal positions in seeking unity). We are led to extend the resulting principles of peace, love, equality and community to our relationship with all beings and the natural world – seeking to answer that of God in all creation.

Our faith, lives and action are inseparable. We have a passion to make manifest the vision of Gospel Order through our practices and structures, and through our work in the world for transformation and for reconciliation. In our final go-round, participants called for a clearer articulation of our Quaker eco-theology and vision, and for acceptance of spiritual practices that connect us with the Earth. Quaker discernment processes and approaches to relationship are particular gifts which, if we could breathe more life into them, have much to offer the healing of our world.

We parted with new energy for our own journeys, projects and challenges, in our lives, meetings and beyond – and also with a sense of companionship, which many of us would like to sustain and develop.

 

Living Witness Gathering 7-9 October

Our gathering at Bamford Quaker Community on 7-9 October is an opportunity to spend a creative weekend working out new ways forward for Living Witness. It would be great to have you with us, especially if you have some time and energy to put into our work.

In February this year Living Witness Trustees met and considered future directions. There was energy for strengthening some of the things we’ve done in the past, like visits to local Quaker meetings to support a deepening of the spiritual basis of our sustainability commitment, organising national Living Witness gatherings, and running experiential retreats. There are opportunities to get involved in all of these areas.

We also talked about new areas where we feel work is needed. In particular moving out more beyond Quakers, and supporting Friends who are doing so. One example is developing a support network for Friends involved in politics, especially those in elected positions, partly to offer them a sense of solidarity with a Quaker community, and also to help develop a stronger sense of Quaker values in and approaches to politics.

One of the emerging areas that most interests me is finding different ways of addressing the fragmentation evident in Britain following the EU Referendum. In particular we might support local meetings to host local conversations across some of the divides – for example, inviting activists from all the local political parties to talk about food or energy. This could involve running some pilot conversations in a few local meetings and developing guidance notes and briefings that others can use.

Other areas include supporting creative nonviolent action, researching and writing about Quaker approaches to sustainability. Some of us would like to develop a repertoire of resources and facilitation or trainings that we can offer to non-Quaker groups – for instance for working with conflict and building community around sustainability.

We really hope that you will get involved in anything that speaks to you, or introduce other areas of work – and there is space for additional trustees! Or perhaps you already have a project that you’d like others to get involved in?

Please contact me soon if you’d like to come as space is limited. The cost of accommodation and food for the weekend is £100/person.

Listening spaces: framing a concern

The British vote to leave the EU was a lightning flash, illuminating the social landscape. Commentators were quick with their analyses. Some blamed the result on inequality or austerity, seeing it as a protest vote. Others saw it as a sign of divisions – in age, education, or cultural values. Follow-up surveys and focus groups have revealed more detail. The referendum asked a simple question but it got mixed up with a variety of issues. We cannot say “the UK public wants x”: people want different things. The particularly striking revelation is the depth of difference in people’s visions for our society.

Humanity currently faces a constellation of crises in many interconnected complex systems (see figure). Dominant themes in the last few decades include a shift in global economic and political power, collapse of the cold war polarity, rapid globalisation and market liberalisation, the ‘war on terror’, growing impacts of climate change and resource depletion, and mass migration.

constellation of crises

Public dialogue in Britain is ill-equipped for dealing with this complexity, or for making the rapid, conscious, collective choices that are needed to address some of the crises. Our debates are usually simplistic, confrontational and destructive. We do not give time and space for real explorations of facts, feelings, values and visions. Our first-past-the-post electoral system leaves many, if not the majority of people, feeling unrepresented or even betrayed.

The nationalist turn in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world is a natural response, but may make it harder to address the issues. We need healing, mutual understanding, compassion, trust, and community-building. These are vital if we are to be at peace with ourselves and each other, and if we are to make any progress on things that really matter for the long term viability of our society and our civilisation.

There has been a lot of talk of building bridges and more collaborative politics. The Green Party proposes a ‘Progressive Alliance’. But this would be a one-off for the next general election, to bring together left-wing parties, “kick out the Tories” and bring in PR. It is not clear that there is a real willingness anywhere to listen, or to move beyond the culture of political tribalism, adversarial dialogue and personal attacks.

Where do Quakers come into this? Many Friends will be attracted to the Progressive Alliance. But I believe something deeper, broader, and longer-term is needed. A Quaker approach to politics and public discourse would:

  • Start from our own willingness to change. It would make openings for the Light – for people to see what is really happening, including our own stake in the status quo and our potential to be part of the way forward
  • Support people to listen, to answer that of God in each other, seeking to give everyone a voice, to build understanding, compassion and trust
  • Build unity – around a way forward together that all can acknowledge to be right even if it doesn’t fit exactly with their personal preferences
  • Recognise that our approach has to be consistent with our goals. If we want to promote peace and understanding we have to start with ourselves, our own tendencies to believe we are right, and our approach to those that disagree with us

There is perhaps a particular challenge in bringing together facts, analysis and deliberation with a sharing of feelings and needs, in the search for unity in a way forward. There are several ways in which we could work to create listening spaces – using processes based on Quaker experience to make it safe for people to talk and listen. These could include:

  • Local community gatherings, perhaps hosted by Quakers in their meeting houses, on themes that matter to everyone. An immediate focus could be on energy options – nuclear power, fracking and renewables. Meetings would need to be carefully held and could be supported through a range of resources including issue briefings and experienced facilitators.
  • Bringing together Quakers in politics, including the MPs and MEPs, to explore and develop shared approaches and principles.
  • Working with elected representatives and others in national or local politics in themed conversations, aiming to bring together people who don’t usually talk to each other and to have the kinds of conversation they don’t usually have – perhaps focusing on personal values, feelings, hopes and fears.
  • Developing a wider network of people in politics committing to/working from shared principles, perhaps with training in nonviolent communication and other skills. They could be asked to commit to a set of standards for positive politics – e.g. listening to those with different perspectives and responding constructively, focusing on agreement rather than disagreement, and refraining from personal attacks.
  • Similar initiatives working with the media

Please do get in touch with me if you have ideas about taking any of this forward or would like to be involved in a project group. This will be a focus at the Living Witness gathering at Bamford Quaker Community on 7-9 October.

Losing liberty?

The Jewish festival of Passover – the feast of freedom – begins this week. I’d like to share this article with you – it was published in The Friend on 12th February 2016.

Laurie

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8.32

A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Advices and Queries 41

My lifestyle choices – especially cycling and being vegan – are partly an assertion of my freedom, self-sufficiency and individuality. It helps that they are also cheap and low-carbon. But for many people sustainable living suggests constraint. It challenges precious freedoms – to drive, fly, eat meat, run the central heating at full blast. It cuts against the spirit of our age, which values individual freedom ‘in the pursuit of happiness’. In the culture of consumerism, happiness is mostly pursued through buying stuff, and through personal comfort and travel.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written about the inevitable tension in community between freedom and security. We give up freedoms in order to belong, and to meet the requirements of fairness and social harmony.  Even in the most libertarian societies, personal freedom may be constrained where it harms others, although that is a difficult negotiation, and the rich and powerful come off best. In the French Republican slogan, liberté and egalité are only reconciled by fraternité – by caring about each other and about society.

It is increasingly obvious that climate change is causing harm. It will wreck billions of human lives as well as destroying species and ecosystems. At some point our freedom to burn fossil fuels must be constrained. If the Paris climate agreement is to have any meaning, that moment must come soon. Could it be a joyous moment?

Quakerism can appear to be a libertarian religion. Many people find a home with us because of the freedom of belief, and of our interior practice in Meeting for Worship. In our local meetings we want to be inclusive, rather than emphasise the discipline that underpins Quaker faith and practice. Phrases like ‘Gospel Order’ are hard to explain, especially when few seasoned Friends are really sure what they mean. At the first encounter, ‘Right Ordering’ can seem slow and stifling. Familiarity comes gradually, through deeper involvement in business meetings, in Yearly Meeting and national committees.

In western society, freedom comes to be identified with unlimited choice. Nobody tells us what not to do. We can put anything we want in our shopping trolley. But research shows that, even when shoppers think they are making free choices, what they actually put in their shopping trolley conforms closely to the norms of their social group.

There is another kind of freedom that comes from the acceptance of limitations, celebration of our world, loving the age we live in, even as we are led to work for change. It is when we are attuned to our context – to our community, to God – that we have the strongest sense of agency, of being part of a larger agency, and so of freedom. It may be the freedom of going with the flow, or the freedom of opposing the Domination System, supported by our faith.

This kind of freedom – choosing a structure, a discipline to live in – can still look to others like a loss of liberty. But constraint is only a loss of freedom when we do not choose it.

Through consistent spiritual practice, listening and watching, inwardly and outwardly, we may awaken to our own Shadow which may have been controlling us; we may awaken to the Leadings of God, whether revealed in our own hearts, in the ministry of others, or in the world around us. And we may awaken our capacity to follow those leadings. This is true freedom.

BYM Sustainability Gathering

The BYM Sustainability Gathering (18-20 March at Swanwick) is shaping up. It is the main opportunity this year for building our Quaker community around the commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community.

The programme is here: BYM Sustainability Gathering 2016 Programme

We have inspiring speakers on practical, creative and community dimensions of our sustainability commitment. There are workshops on climate justice, storytelling, the UN negotiations, greening your meeting and lots more. There will be space for sharing your experience of what’s happening and what’s needed in developing our Quaker sustainability witness. And there are opportunities for you to offer activities, start conversations, or run your own workshop.

Please do make sure your meeting is sending at least one Friend. Although the official deadline has passed, we will go on accepting bookings while there are spaces. Register here!

 

The Paris Climate Conference: What love will do

First published in The Friend, 18th December 2015

Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel. (William Penn, 1693; Qfp 24.03)

It’s that time of year again. Negotiators are heading home from the twenty first annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, after two weeks of working through the night. This was their fifth gathering this year, and they have been working towards this particular agreement for four years. The closing plenary was moving to watch, with delegates in tears, with hugs, kisses and extended standing ovations.

The outcome has been widely greeted as a turning point. In aspiration it goes far beyond expectations. At the beginning of 2015, we seemed on track for a 4°C global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of dire implications for life on Earth.

The new agreement states that its aim is to strengthen the global response to climate change by holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C.

It has something for nearly everyone. It pays attention to concerns for human rights and equity, to the need for sustainable lifestyles. There are processes to increase financial support from developed to developing nations and address the issue of ‘loss and damage’ due to climate change. But – as many delegates observed – the agreement is weak on specific commitments. It relies on ‘nationally determined contributions’ – essentially voluntary commitments to emission cuts, targets, policies, financial contributions and actions. One country, Nicaragua, said it would not sign the agreement because it is inadequate and will not achieve its stated aim.

Some scientists have expressed deep disappointment about the disconnect between the 1.5°C aspiration and the emission reduction pathway signalled by the agreement. It commits countries ‘to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.

The COP decision asks the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a new report by 2018 looking specifically at 1.5°C pathways. The IPCC Fifth Assessment, published last year, paid minimal attention to such pathways. Probably nobody thought they were seriously possible. The focus was on assessing whether a 2°C limit was feasible and what it might entail. However we can have some idea of what the new report might say. To have a good chance of limiting warming to 2°C we should phase out fossil fuels globally by 2050. To stay below 1.5°C we need deep cuts immediately, phasing out fossil fuels by perhaps 2030.

Achieving the aim of the Paris Agreement would take nothing less than a global transformation – in technology, finance, power relations, industries and lifestyles. For most people this is unimaginable. Yet it may not be so difficult. British carbon emissions per capita fell thirty percent in the last ten years. While our government currently seems to be doing its best to stop the transformation, it has begun here and most people have hardly noticed.

What really matters is not the wording of this agreement but the process by which it was achieved. The French presidency of the COP showed phenomenal leadership in transforming relationships among negotiators from the bitterness and distrust expressed a year ago to the loving fellowship displayed in Paris. It was a feat of community-building that involved a huge amount of careful listening and facilitating dialogue in small groups. And there were willing participants – perhaps most significantly in the efforts of China and the United States to co-operate and to set out their own national plans of action.

The global climate regime is voluntary. The new agreement provides for any party to withdraw from it at will. There is no provision for sanctions or force against parties that do not meet their commitments. So change will only happen when enough people – including key players in government and business – want it. The amazing thing is that transformations of relationships, of the human will, of behaviour, happen very quickly.

The COP decision explicitly states that the provisions on loss and damage do not constitute a basis for legal liability or compensation. This was necessary for some developed countries to agree. But as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said at a press conference, litigation is already happening. He cited a Philippines case against fifteen fossil fuel companies. ‘The struggle continues tomorrow’ and civil society ‘will be finding creative ways of resistance’.

The real challenge with a community is to maintain it, to cope with the tensions and struggles that emerge, especially when the going gets tough. Old wounds and resentments are still there beneath the surface. I do not believe there is much difference in this between the United Nations and a local Quaker meeting. My own experience is that sustaining community takes a lot of work. It helps a lot to have experienced people on hand, supporting participants to see things from each other’s point of view. It can be really hard to speak the truth, but when we don’t, relationships harden or unravel. Community depends on a willingness to listen, to love, to forgive. And above all, it requires a willingness to change ourselves.

What has happened in Paris is a microcosm of the community building that needs to happen everywhere, in organisations, neighbourhoods, cities, countries. The action needs to come from all of us. That means changing our lifestyles, our patterns of work and of relationships. It means fossil fuel companies undergoing their own transformation to leave carbon in the ground and find new business models.  It means elites finding a new power base – perhaps deriving kudos from generosity and pursuing the well-being of humanity, rather than their own bank balances.

Midwinter may be a good time to stop, reflect and listen for the Leadings of the Spirit. What are we called to do? What am I called to do? What gifts am I going to offer the world at this special time?

Your gifts may be practical. Could you move towards a vegan diet, reorganise your life to cut down on car and air travel, or install a wood stove and use less gas?

Perhaps you are a communicator. Can you befriend your MP and share your sense of urgency about climate change? Or maybe it’s time to write that short story, song or poem, or paint that picture.

You might be called to take direct action, to challenge, to expose the truth. Can you do so and sustain love and forgiveness, rejoicing in that of God even in those you are challenging?

Or perhaps your gift is to help build community and heal relationships, in your Quaker meeting, your family, your neighbourhood or workplace.

In the closing plenary of the COP, the United States delegate spoke about entrepreneurial innovation. The South African delegate quoted Nelson Mandela and the Indian delegate mentioned Gandhi. Each of us has something special to bring. Many of the delegates mentioned faith groups as part of the effort and support that made the agreement possible.

Paris represents a huge step forward in community building, globally, to be able to address climate change. We can only greet it as a moment of joy.

The Holy Mountain

(This article was published in The Friend, 1st May 2015)

Thirteen years ago I spent three days at Young Friends’ Summer Gathering at Pardshaw in the Lake District. They wanted to explore their witness to “that of God in all creation.” In the mornings they generously shared with me – a less-young Friend – their values, visions, and ideas for action for a sustainable world. In the afternoons we walked, swam, and kept talking.

Their visions were wide ranging: “we would be in contact with the earth”, “practising arts and crafts”, “we would dance all night”, “no cars”, “no nations or boundaries”, “security, trust, safe in our own homes”, “everything organic, fairly traded, respecting people and earth”, “complement rather than contradict.” I cannot convey the emotional depth and reverence that infused our worship-sharing in the sun. Or the effort to wrestle with the complexity of it all, the frustrations, the tensions between our desires and our dreams, our ideals and the Spirit of the Age.

I have experienced many visioning workshops since, with Quaker and other groups. The themes are broadly similar. There is a longing for a restored relationship with nature, with ourselves and with other people.
This longing is old and widely shared, at least in faith traditions. In God’s holy mountain none shall hurt or destroy and even the lions are vegan (Isaiah 11:6-9). But people disagree deeply on how to get there. They have tried many paths without success.

There is a path up the holy mountain. It might be called “deep nonviolence”, or “living out our faith in the world”. For me it is grounded in Quaker testimony and modelled by Gandhi and many others. It has strong Buddhist and Taoist resonances. There are three fundamentals:

First, being patterns and examples. If we hope the world will change, we start with a readiness to change ourselves, to learn from the experience and share it with others. If we see darkness around us, the first step is to let the Light show us our own darkness and bring us to new life.

Second, answering that of God in everyone. We listen, reaching deep for the truth others’ words may hold for us, prepared to be challenged, to find we have been mistaken. We embrace difference as well as similarity, recognising others’ gifts and seeing how they complement our own. Listening is the first step if we hope others will listen to us, and perhaps become companions on the path.

Third, seeking unity in a way forward together. We ask how we are led forward together and submit to God’s will – which is revealed when we heed the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and answer that of God in each other.

Sometimes the path appears to go nowhere, but if we stay with it the mountain comes into being around us. This path can bring us to new and surprising perspectives on familiar issues: climate change, oppression, community, violent conflict, housing, the use of money. Deep nonviolence applies in politics, in the family, in international negotiations. When we practise it in one sphere, we develop our capacity to practise it in others and we learn how everything is connected.

We may find ourselves walking against the crowd but we do not negate other paths. We may feel alone. This path can feel too slow. We may not arrive in our lifetimes. Even so it is the fastest path and it is what love requires. Occasionally we may find companions to walk a while with us. That is a profound joy.

Human Dimensions Retreat, Bamford, 18-22 June

Come and join us to:

  • deepen your understanding of the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of addressing climate change
  • explore your feelings and leadings in a nurturing group
  • find resources that you can use in your life, community and work
  • get to know other Friends with a sustainability concern
  • experience being part of the Quaker Community in Bamford, eating, worshipping, having fun and learning together and
  • enjoy the beautiful surroundings in the Derbyshire Peak District.

The retreat will be centred in worship, exploring what we have learned as Quakers in our engagement with climate change. Each day will include short talks for information or inspiration, extended Quaker worship and other spiritual practices, and substantial free time with opportunities for walks, individual creative work, gardening and helping in the kitchen.  We will conclude the retreat with a Quaker meeting for worship for business which may record what we have found in a minute or epistle.

We’ll address some of the most challenging questions for Quakers in our sustainability commitment.

Thursday evening: Welcome session. Introductions to the summer school, the Community and each other. Beginning to get to know one another.

Friday: Patterns and examples. How do we develop low carbon sustainable ways of life? What inspires, motivates and sustains us? How do we address the challenges and where can we find resources and support?

Saturday: Answering that of God in the Other. How do we deal with conflicting priorities – for example between people’s needs and desires (for warmth, for travel to see loved ones etc.) and our commitment to low carbon living? Can we be both compassionate and sustainable?

Sunday: Finding unity. Have we found ways of enabling people to feel they can make a difference together? What is our experience of achieving positive change in our communities, our meetings, and wider society?

Monday morning: Moving forward. This session will address personal next steps and needs for ongoing support. We could also include a meeting for worship for business to prepare a minute or epistle, if we are so led.

Booking your place

Please contact the Community at mail@quakercommunity.org.uk or on 01433 650085  to register. The cost of attending is on a sliding scale of £150-240 depending on what you feel you can afford. Some bursary help is available if £150 is too much for you, but please do seek support from your meeting.

Comfortable accommodation and vegan or vegetarian, mostly organic food are included.

Accommodation will be in single or shared rooms, with the use of community bathrooms. Towels and linen are provided.

We happily provide for gluten free, sugar free and other diets.

Arrivals and departures:

Please plan to arrive by 6pm on the Thursday and to leave from 2pm on Monday. The Community is ½ mile from Bamford rail station with trains from Sheffield and Manchester. There are also buses from Sheffield. We will send full travel directions when you register.

 

Shape of the day

Most days of the retreat will take the following shape. Timings may change depending on the Community’s worship times and decisions of the retreat group. On the Sunday morning we will join Hope Valley Quaker Meeting for worship at 10.45.

07.00-09.00 Breakfast & washing up

08.00-08.30 Meeting for Worship

09.15 -12.15 Morning session, including a break

13.00 Lunch & washing up

14.00 Free time

16.00 Individual/small group activities

18.30 Supper & washing up

20.00 Evening session

21.30 Epilogue

 

Further information

For more details about the content of the retreat, please contact Laurie Michaelis: laurie@livingwitness.org.uk or 01835 244193.

To make your booking or ask for information about the Quaker Community at Bamford please contact the Community at mail@quakercommunity.org.uk or 01433 650085.

Human Dimensions Workshop, Oxford, 14th March

On 14th March we are holding a day workshop which will be the first gathering of the new Quaker network on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change.

The programme for the day is here:  HDCC Workshop Oxford

Please complete a booking form and send it to us if you wish to attend: Human Dimensions Registration March 2015

The network arose from the March 2014 Canterbury Commitment Gathering at Swanwick, where a group of Friends agreed that we want to develop a better shared understanding of the social, spiritual and psychological aspects of responding to climate change. Some of the themes that interest us include

•    working with constructively with denial, blame, shame and guilt;

•    embracing difference and reconciling the value systems, worldviews and priorities of different people and groups; and

•    developing moral community and a collective will to change.

The workshop will include opportunities to explore these themes and to consider the development of our network. Our sessions will be grounded in Quaker worship.

Refreshments will be provided but please bring your own lunch.

 

 

Answering that of God in the perpetrators

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Advices & Queries #1, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. George Fox, 1656, quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

At our holocaust remembrance service in Oxford, one of the readings was from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”. Wiesel, a Romanian Jew, survived Auschwitz to become a journalist, university professor and political activist in the United States. In his Nobel speech he went on to speak of Palestinian suffering but he said: “I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.”

Many Quakers do not share Wiesel’s optimism. It is obvious to them that we should take sides, and which side we should take in Palestine. Israeli military assaults have taken thousands of Palestinian lives. One Friend spoke to me of needing to “cage the wild dog”.

One of the problems with taking sides is that victims and perpetrators change places. Sometimes it is hard to know which is which. When we expand our vision, we may see that both are victims of something much bigger. Usually, if we are really willing to look, we find that we are part of that something.

By taking sides we collude with a narrative of blame that helps perpetuate the cycle of violence. Those we call perpetrators themselves feel victimised, while those we call victims feel justified in seeking revenge.

Is there an alternative? What do love and truth require of us? It is often easier to see a way forward when conflicts are at a smaller scale. I have sometimes been stunned to realise that the wrong I saw someone else committing was a mirror of what I was doing. I have also been amazed by the transformation that has occurred when I made the effort – and it can be a huge effort – to see things from the other person’s point of view, to take responsibility and apologise for my role in the situation.

Of course, this is a world away from the Nazis’ deliberate attempt to exterminate those they saw as subhuman, from Israel’s punitive attacks on Palestinians with apparent indifference to the loss of life, and from the unintentional mass killing of humans and other species in which we are all engaged as we continue to burn fossil fuels. A question that keeps coming up for me is about what it means to answer that of God in the perpetrators of both human and ecological harm.

The starting point for me is recognising that much of the violence in our world is symptomatic of old, deep wounds, embedded in religious liturgy, national narratives and systems of economic and political power. Two writers have particularly helped me in thinking about this. One was Walter Wink, a New Testament theologian who wrote a series of books about “The Powers”. The other was the Quaker, Adam Curle, who spent much of his life working in conflict situations and was the first director of the Bradford Department of Peace Studies.

Part of Walter Wink’s insight is that perpetrators of violence – from those who killed people in Paris and Nigeria recently to our own political leaders – are victims of what he calls the Domination System, as we all are to some degree. The  Domination System, which is closely related to what Jonathan Dale calls the Spirit of the Age, has its life in and through us and our institutions.

Adam Curle draws on Tibetan Buddhism in his analysis of the linked problems of human and ecological violence. He sees the roots as lying in the three kleshas, or poisons, of ignorance (of our true interconnected nature), desire and aggression. These feed the Hydra, the many headed monster obsessed with money and power. We can cut off one head of the monster by resolving a conflict here, or greening a corporation there, but the Hydra has an infinite capacity to grow new heads unless we can stem the flow of poison.

In Curle’s analysis, what is needed is a spiritual awakening, a transformation of individuals and of cultures to recognise the connectedness of everything. It starts with us. When we express anger at other people, when we condemn them as somehow inhuman, or use words like “evil”, whenever we deny our connectedness to them, we are feeding the Hydra.

So if there is a battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, it is played out in all of us. The first step for each of us must be to allow the Light to show us our darkness.

I haven’t generally found it helpful to point out the darkness when I think I see it in other people. It is through being patterns and examples, and at the same time answering that of God in others, that we support them in observing their own darkness and finding the way to new life. It seems to me that we are feeding the Hydra when we try to change other people – when we treat them as objects rather than subjects.

So the second step is to allow the Light to bring us to new life. For me this is a very slow process of observing the kleshas at work in my thoughts and actions, and looking to see what I can change in myself. Often this means seeking advice – and following it.

It is only when I know my own responsibility for the problem – and know it as a positive thing, beyond denial, blame, guilt and shame – that I am ready for the third step: to engage other people in working towards solutions together. This can also be a very slow process. It involves a lot of listening, trying to see things from others’ points of view. It can be very uncomfortable. It can be hard to stay faithful to the process, especially if it seems that time is being lost while the violence continues. But it is probably the only way to break the cycle.