How equality can help reshape society

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
21 Oct 2009

The second in our series on the Quaker Testimonies

Gervase Benson, a 17th century Cumbrian Quaker, was highly regarded among his contemporaries. Friends from Briggflats where Benson worshipped, wrote of his “humility in all things”. They drew attention to his refusal to stand upon his considerable status: “He generally styled himself husbandman, notwithstanding that he had been a colonel, a justice of the peace, mayor of Kendal and was commissary in the archdeaconry of Richmond before the late domestic wars, yet as an humble disciple of Christ, downed those things.”

It is in that last clause that we may find the key to the Quaker Testimony of equality. To follow in the way of Jesus should make rank and status irrelevant. The artisan from a poor and little regarded province of an occupied country – hardly one of his society's movers and shakers – left us a command which is terrifying in its simplicity - “love your neighbour as yourself.”

That we differ in attributes of mind and body is beyond dispute; but our equal value and dignity before God must inform our perception of, and response to, our relationships with each other.

Quakers are committed to acting out Jesus' mandate of loving respect in the management of their communities. No attributes of gender, race, age, sexuality or education are permitted to define the status of a Friend within their Meeting.

There are no ordained leaders, no hierarchy and no systems of ambition or advancement. Elders, chosen for their capacity to nurture the spiritual life and right ordering of a Meeting in partnership with all its members, serve only for three years and the appointment carries no implication of promotion.

But if we are to be signs of contradiction, this belief in equality has to be carried beyond the Meeting and find expression in a profoundly unequal society. That society has a deep suspicion of anything which may be perceived as undermining the scramble for advantage and superiority which is the motor of so much of our political, economic and social thinking.

It pleases the opponents of egalitarianism, which is the socio-political expression of the spiritual concept of equality, to represent this desirable condition as joyless uniformity. They delight in setting up a a dystopian vision of a society in which all will be required to paint their front doors the same colour and drive people's Trabants.

The words of the 20th century Christian Socialist, R. H. Tawney should be considered if we would reach a more measured understanding: “While ... natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation."

The organisation of society needs a radical overhaul if we are to bring justice to the deprived and – by extension – a safer, more stable culture for us all.

Unequal societies are unhappy societies: the deprived suffer more illness, die younger and suffer disproportionally from crime and familial breakdown.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by social epidemiologists Professor Richard Wilkinson and Dr Kate Pickett, analyses and describes the far higher incidence of physical and mental illness and social dysfunction which occur in societies with the greatest differential between high and low earners.

There can be no moral justification for permitting this state of affairs to go unchanged and the Testimony of equality demands that we both challenge the self-righteousness and understand the fears of the more fortunate stratum of society.

Placing the greatest investment in the areas of greatest need - in housing, education, employment, reduced taxes on low earners and increased support for those who have to depend upon benefits - does not pose a threat to the more fortunate.

The “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” attitude is unrealistic in situations of entrenched deprivation from which only rare individuals possessed of extraordinary powers of will and intellect will find an unaided exit. It represents an ugly tendency to shrug off responsibility for what we may find unpleasant.

This forms the interface with a fear of manners and mores which may be at odds with our own. Deprivation is not pretty and those who are its victims may sometimes speak and act in a manner which is not what the fancy of middle England paints.

Equality, and its fruit of liberty are often easier to espouse than fraternity. And that is where the words of George Fox which are woven into the hearts and minds of every Quaker serve as our yardstick: “...walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

More from Jill Segger on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Jill+Segger

The first article in this series is called 'Cultivating the discipline of peace' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10356

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