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Quaker Meetings are not hotbeds of the competitive instinct and in most Meeting Houses you will probably find a poster depicting two donkeys tethered to each other, straining in opposite directions to reach bundles of hay. In the second frame, the animals have realised the futility of their actions and are standing side by side munching contentedly from the same manger. 'Co-operation is better than conflict' is the caption.
Of course, this only works when both donkeys are of more or less equal strength and thus cancel out each other's efforts. Where one force is either a great deal stronger or is perceived as being the dominant and therefore admirable power, the struggle is much less likely to be resolved in a humane and rational manner.
That is the situation in which our whole 'growth' culture finds itself. Competition is all, and an ever growing GDP is presented as a goal which must be subject to no challenge or criticism. Little thought is given to the balancing of priorities as getting and spending, power would have us lay waste our powers.
The stale and aggressive language of David Cameron's New Year message provided a dispiriting reminder of the damage done by permitting this to go unquestioned. His chosen phrases are those of conflict - “ a fight on our hands”, “ a global race”, “a race for the future”, “getting on”, “ global rankings”.
This “government in a hurry” is anxious to present its policies as thrusting, competitive and go-getting. It is so busy with the strident proclamation of entrepreneurship and the ruthless brushing aside of those who, through weakness of any kind, are unequal to its pursuit, that its dominant-donkey act has become an orthodoxy as cruel and blinkered as anything embraced by an inquisition or politburo.
To ask whether unfettered rises in the standard of living of those with the sharpest elbows and fewest scruples is an irresistible force of economic nature is dismissed as naïve at best and as evidence of a sour malignity at worst.
But it is time that the other donkey (remember 'we are the 99 per cent'?) pulled its weight. We must speak for a rebalancing, for the factoring of the care of the sick, disabled, elderly, poor and vulnerable young into the economic equation. For a weighing of Trident against the NHS; for an education system which – despite Gradgrind Gove – will nourish the arts and creativity; for compassion, forbearance and respect for those things which may be economically unproductive but are spiritually nourishing. And above all, for a true understanding that although we cannot live without bread, it can never alone, be enough.
A good New Year to all and may you all set free your inner donkey.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet