Monday, 9 April 2018

Speaking Truth to Power - Correct Me If I'm Wrong

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be an overuse of the phrase 'speaking truth to power' just lately. I've caught campaigners, journalists, Guardian readers (of whom I am one), bishops, archbishops and insufficiently intersectional feminists using it in what might be considered defensible but sloppy ways.

It's often used to mean communicating uncomfortable opinions or facts to people who are perceived as having some authority or responsibility in a situation. Very often the speaker is, themselves, in what might be perceived as a position of moderate power or authority or is speaking on behalf of others. This is the case when religious leaders confront politicians, white feminists speak for all women or investigative journalists represent the views of others.

The origin of the phrase casts it in a rather different light. In modern times, it was first recorded in 1942 by Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, who wrote that 'the primary social function of a religious society is to speak the truth to power'. He was making use of a Quaker way-of-being that reaches back at least to an eighteenth century Charge entitled 'Speaking Truth to Power'. 

The most often quoted use of the phrase is possibly in the title of a 1955 document. The American Friends Service Committee commissioned a study of international conflict. They were searching for alternatives to violence and militarism by which the American government might be advised to address 'anti American' behaviour of various kinds during the Cold War.  

'Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history. Because of this we could not end this study without discussing the relationship between the politics of time with which men are daily concerned and the politics of eternity which they too easily ignore.'

Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence is a document well worth reading in full. It sets out a distinct approach to the proper relationship between faith and politics and, in doing so, defines the deep basis of the duty of speaking truth to power. Perception of truth, it claims, is a matter of belief in something that exists beyond the boundaries of history yet intimately influences our daily living.

If the idea of speaking truth to power comes from a specifically pacifist attitude, then it also grows, more generally, out of Quaker approaches to what can be known of God. Quakers seldom make pronouncements about 'truth' without much careful inner searching, a great deal of thought and an arrival at a place where their lived experience of God-speaking-to-them is such that they can do no other than speak. It is only by a disciplined and difficult process that common truths can be spoken and acknowledged. It would be rare to find Quakers speaking 'truths' they did not first try to immerse themselves in or speaking dogmatically or purely on behalf of others in a way that did not arise from their own experience. 

By all means, let public figures challenge people who hold power, let leaders campaign on behalf of disadvantaged groups. But don't devalue the notion of 'speaking truth to power' which is a rare, precious and profoundly effective thing. Foucault likens it to the ancient Greek concept of 'bold speech' and describes it this way,

 '...parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.' (The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia)

This is the approach of someone like the Bible's Queen Esther, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, living the truth they speak. There's an Indian word for it - Satyagraha - 'truth-force'. Chomsky had an interesting take on the notion when he turned it on its head and said that there was no need to speak truth to power as 'power knows the truth already and is busy concealing it'. According to Chomsky, it is the oppressed, not the oppressor that need to hear the truth because this will empower them to help themselves. As Martin Luther King famously observed, freedom is seldom, if ever, given voluntarily by the oppressor, it has to be demanded by the oppressed.

I'm not knocking leaders who have a go at pointing out the defects of political or social systems but I would prefer to call that campaigning. It would also be fair to note that all campaigns have their limits and this may be connected with the limits of embodiment and lived experience we all bring to our campaigning and speaking. Humility is called for!

'Speaking the truth to power' in its proper sense is a rare occurrence. It is something that only the deeply committed can achieve and it is something that even they will likely only be able to do two or three times in their life. When this happens, the heavens will part and something more powerful than politics or human wisdom will gather a momentum that shapes history.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

18,000 Miles Round the Globe

I've just returned from an inspiring send-off for my good friend Robert Cleave. Robert's fulfilling a long-held ambition to cycle 18,000 miles around the world. He hopes to complete the journey over the next 18 months, doing it because he loves cycling and enjoys the adventure. He's raising money for Traidcraft and Cancer Research as he goes. You can follow his epic journey on The link to his Facebook page is also there. By tonight he will be in Morocco to start the African leg of his tour.

It was threatening rain as we all arrived at Bramcote Park to say 'Godspeed'.  Among the 400+ who turned out were friends and family from all over Britain, former colleagues from Boots, Scouts and lots of folk from St Michael's Bramcote and other churches. After short speeches and a blessing by the Mayor of Broxtowe and the junior Mayor representing young people (what a great idea - well done, Broxtowe!), a ribbon was cut and Robert led a fleet of cyclists of all ages off on the symbolic first mile.

As he said himself, if you have something you've always wanted to do, don't get to the point where you can no longer do it and have to live with the regret - have a go. Even if you don't complete your challenge, you will know you tried! I can't think of anything more inspiring to do with your retirement and Robert's example has set me thinking about how I can combine some of the things I've always wanted to do into a challenging adventure for the future. We wish Robert all the best, bon voyage, safe travel, excellent health, good new friends and generous hospitality where ever he goes and a happy return with lots of stories to tell!

The other part of the challenge is of course Robert's family's. To give someone up for 18 months is quite a thing and they will be glad of your prayers, love and support.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Child Labour and Chocolate Eggs

When I was a child, Easter Monday was always the day for taking stock of the eggs sitting on top of the piano. There would usually be quite a few and you could work out how many days' supply of chocolate treats lay ahead with careful management!

The egg signified new life, nourishment, hope, the opening up of possibilities as the egg-shaped stone was rolled away from Jesus' tomb. It also meant lots of fun with your friends as you shared the generosity of aunts and uncles, next-door neighbours and grandparents.

Not all children have the same innocent relationship of fun with the chocolate Easter egg. Stop the Traffic is an Australian coalition that campaigns to improve the wellbeing of farmers at the bottom of the food chain and thereby irradicate child labour and the trafficking of children. They focus mainly on the fashion, cotton, fishing, tea and chocolate industries.

In West Africa (mainly the Ivory Coast and Ghana) a proportion of cocoa is harvested by child labour, mainly young boys who are trafficked for the purpose. 90% of the world's cocoa is grown by small-holding farmers who cannot make a living wage from selling their product to the large production companies. Stop the Traffic states that 70% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa where there are millions of children involved in its production. Farmers are locked into a cycle that does not permit them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and results in the use of forced child labour.

In order to be certain that your Easter egg or other chocolate product has not been produced using child labour you need to look out for 'Fair Trade', 'Cocoa Life', 'Cocoa Plan', 'Rain Forest Alliance', 'Cocoa Farming Programme' or 'UTZ Certified Cocoa' labels.

Stop the Traffic commissioned a report into the activities of six major chocolate companies. A Matter of Taste is a unique and ground-breaking piece of work looking at the steps these companies are taking toward eliminating child labour and there is detailed information to be found there.

In Britain, many of us associate the production of chocolate with Quaker firms like Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry. Since the last third of the twentieth century these companies are no longer in Quaker hands and have been taken over by some of the multinational giants. But the charitable trusts set up in conjunction with these great Quaker companies remain and are now actively working toward sustainability of the environment and the irradication of poverty and slavery. More can be gleaned about the U.K. scene from Jon Martin's article on the Quaker website, A Quick History of Chocolate and Quakerism 

As you eat your Easter eggs, check for signs they haven't been produced using child labour and that they don't contain palm oil whose production contributes to deforestation. Jon Martin also makes the point that eating recreational food with ingredients transported across the globe is not the best way to use resources or celebrate life. So perhaps a look at how locally produced treats could be incorporated in your celebrations in future might provide for a more sustainable way of marking Easter next year?

Or here's an idea for Easter Story Eggs that might be fun (though not chocolatey!) Resurrection Eggs. You could make it with cardboard eggs and real leaves instead of plastic ones.
©Creative Bible Study

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Beyond the Night Sky - Music for Stephen Hawking


Today the national living wage rises to £7.83 (if you are over 25.) If you are aged 18-20 the minimum wage applies and that's set at £5.90. Apprentices and under 16's can be paid less. These figures can be checked out on the government's information site

I'm just looking at an advert for a nursery nurse. The pay is £7,280 per annum for full time hours. It's relatively common for nursery nurses' and carers' wages to fall below the national living wage. Many under 18's do not earn the minimum wage. Some workers are not paid when they are sick as they are contracted on an hourly rate. Carers may well be required to own and run a car in order to do their job.

There is a crisis brewing. The U.K. does not have enough workers who will work for the wages offered to care for our children, elderly, and emotionally and physically vulnerable. We are seeing a rapid fall (proportional to the growth of the elderly population) in the number of people who are willing to care under the conditions created by successive government policies. These sectors are groaning under the weight of top down supervision, constant change and heavy handed policy-making.

Those who teach and care for our most precious loved ones - our youngest children and our elderly parents - provide the basic 'oil in the engine' that allows society to function. This 'oil' is the ability of ordinary people to go about their business every day knowing that their family will be cared for and taught at affordable cost by well-motivated, competent, compassionate people.

As a country we are moving to a situation where there will be a crisis of recruitment. What seems to be missing is any consistent, research-based attempt to listen to the voices of the practitioners as well as the policy makers. What research has been done to find out what carers see as priorities for their charges and for themselves as workers? What motivates someone to go into these roles and dedicate themselves to the initial and continual training required? OFSTED and the CQC ought to be commissioning research and taking a good hard look at the results to ensure that measurement systems and inspections are based on a sound understanding of the basic needs of both clients and workers. Only with the buy-in and wisdom of the carers themselves can we ensure our children, disabled and elderly are supported in the best possible quality of life. The problem with setting standards that are not shaped by those delivering the care and the teaching is that the workforce gradually becomes disillusioned, disempowered and de-motivated and it becomes increasingly difficult to attract new people into the sector and retain them after training.

But I believe there's a deeper problem. And that lies in the prevailing attitude toward any 'industry' that does not generate profit. As a society we seem to have lost the notion of vocation - the idea that we are all called to set aside sufficient resources for the care of our children, our ill, our disabled and our elderly. We ought to be doing this as a proportion of the GNP and we ought to be doing it individually in families and locally through the giving of time and voluntary support. 'Called' is perhaps a word with religious overtones to which some might object. However I think it's the right word in this context and it arises from our common humanity. The human condition is such that where there is need, we notice and respond; where this need is among our own, we cannot be unknowing. It is the the mark of the humanity of any functional social grouping that, out of its wealth, it sets aside enough for its most vulnerable members.

Historically 'care' has been the job of the family and often the women in the family. It is no great surprise that one of our lowest paid sectors arises from a trajectory of 'women's work'. The role of women in caring has transferred from the family to the churches to the social services and health care agencies without any rigorous evaluation of the skill or value intrinsic of its worth. As a society we simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs about care. On the one hand it's something anyone can do - don't parents do it all the time for their children? No special training necessary! On the other hand it's something about which lots of people say 'I couldn't do that for all the tea in China.' Too much patience needed, too many menial tasks involved! Put the two attitudes together and you have a profession that is not thought of as requiring much skill or training and where most people do not wish to think about its reality in too much detail. So the myth that there is a plentiful supply of 'angels' who will do this sort of work is perpetuated.

Perhaps as the living wage increases you might spend a moment or two thinking about how you do or could live on or below the living wage. And maybe think about jobs that are often slightly better paid - waiters, bar staff, checkout staff, cleaners, delivery personnel for example - and wonder why it is we value some of those who take on the responsibility of caring for our family members so little.