Sit, be still and listen, for you are drunk and we are at the edge of the roof. (from Rumi)
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the most widely-observed fast day in the Jewish calendar. In synagogues at this time, congregations meditate on their sins and pray for redemption and for deeper change. Isaiah 58 is part of the liturgy: “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high…”. Instead we are called to be part of a social transformation: “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house… break every yoke…then shall your light rise in the darkness…and the Lord will guide you continually…”
As I write, the second global mass action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) is under way. XR demands that governments ‘tell the truth’ about the climate emergency, act now to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and establish citizen’s assemblies to guide climate and ecological justice. All this would amount to a global social transformation on an unprecedented level.
We hold a weekly ‘eco-listening space’ at Oxford Friends Meeting House; participants are mostly Quakers and XR activists. We pass a talking stone around the circle and listen deeply as each person gives voice to feelings and thoughts in response to the climate and ecological crises. Emotions range from grief and fear to despair and frustration. People often cast about for a sense of being able to make a difference. Some of the well-worn conversations are about ways to change our lifestyles and reduce our carbon footprints. These may be more about guilt-limitation than social transformation. And few are willing to make the changes that would have most impact – deep reductions in meat and dairy consumption, driving, flying and home energy use.
Observing the resistance to change, it is hard to hold much hope for a voluntary, managed social transition. Rather than a ‘climate emergency’, we may face swarms of emergencies of increasing intensity – arising out of extreme weather, harvest failures, wars, mass migration or pandemics. The result could be a collapse or radical discontinuity in our civilisation. A strong inner compass may be the most important resource for people living through this time. Much could depend on the capacity of individuals and groups to face up to the truth of what is happening and to cultivate collaborative relationships and communities. Faith traditions may have more to offer than the conventions of economic analysis and socio-political strategy.
I have come to value three fundamental principles in Quaker practice, which have resonances or parallels in other faiths.
The first is a personal discipline of ‘standing still in the Light’ that ‘shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’ For me this is about a sustained openness to learning, to peeling off the layers of unconsciousness, to becoming more awake and to sometimes to seeing ourselves and the world in completely new ways.
The second is a relational discipline: ‘answering that of God in every one’. Quaker advice is to listen, reach deep for the meaning others’ words may hold for us, prepared to be challenged, to find we have been mistaken. Listening to others, we free them to listen to us and begin to build mutual understanding, compassion and empowerment.
And the third is a discipline of the group or community, ‘seeking unity’ in a way forward together. Quaker-inspired practices of consent-based decision making, as opposed to voting or majority rule, have been adopted by many of the new sustainability movements including XR and the Global Ecovillage Network.
Some of the hardest questions at the moment are about division within and between communities. For many of us, the positive energy around XR and the school strikes is inspiring, but how do we build common cause with those who find these movements threatening? We are unlikely to succeed by trying to persuade or change other people, to make them the solutions to our problem, especially where they see us as the source of theirs. And how can we in Britain build common cause with the many nations that have suffered oppression and even genocide in our colonial history? Can we face up to our collective darkness even though individually we may feel we have no part in it.
The Yom Kippur liturgy has many registers, from prayers for forgiveness, and a washing away of sin, to the call to build a new society. So we may need many registers in our response to the climate crisis. One of those is adding up our carbon footprints and trimming the kilos, learning new habits and ways of living, which can be deeply satisfying and even fun. Another is much harder, recognising that since we share our climate with everyone on the planet, we can only hope to address the crisis through collaboration with others. But sustained collaboration depends on mutual trust, understanding and compassion.
Christians often speak of love as the basis of their religion. Perhaps it is love in action that really matters, which we might call ‘kindness’. In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment… Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing… Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…”
A version of this article was published on 9th October by the faith and society thinktank, Theos.