The little things: combining for change

By Jill Segger
October 20, 2014

Ebola, war, terrorism, injustice, inequality, squalid government, torture. Sometimes the inventory of cruelty and suffering seems overwhelming. The temptation to spiral into despair and the cynicism born of helplessness can assail us all. But sometimes a glimmer comes in the darkness and smallness no longer seems to equal futility.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to hear Bruce Kent speak on 'Striving for peace in a troubled world'. An icon of the peace movement, Bruce is now 85 years of age but there is no diminution in his energy or his vision. The cantus firmus running through his talk was that however despondent we may feel about abuses of power, inequality and the prevalence of armed conflict, there is always something, however small, that every one of us can do. “Any one here written to a newspaper this week?” he challenged us. “Wear a peace badge, a white poppy – be ready to get into conversation in the pub or in the street about it, read the United Nations Charter, write to your MP when the government disregards it.”

“Use your imaginations – be ready to abandon what doesn't work. Be your own people, say your own thing, engage the young”. Bruce Kent takes his own advice. He told us how he recently went to Lewes Castle with his great-niece, having concealed in his rucksack a peace banner over 20 feet in length. They ascended the tower and unfurled it over the parapet. Friends below took photographs which were then posted on social media. There's a teenager who won't forget the force of one small act of commitment combined with creativity and a sense of mischief.

In the following week, a Democracy and Human Rights Fair took place in Bury St Edmunds Cathedral as part of the Magna Carta celebrations. Amnesty International, Freedom from Torture, the Fawcett Society, the Anne Frank Trust, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the United Nations Association, Christian Aid and Suffolk Refugee Support were just some of the participating groups.

At first, I experienced a slight sense of despondency. Almost everyone there – and there were not that many – were middle aged and predominantly middle class. The usual suspects, you might say. But as I talked to people, that sense of hope born from personal responsibility which Bruce Kent had articulated so powerfully was renewed. Here were a small number of committed individuals, seeking to network, to form partnerships, to inform and encourage. The critical test seemed suddenly very clear – how would we be situated if no one was working in this way? How would impunity increase? What would the world become if power was never challenged, scrutinised or its abuses opposed? And perhaps most important of all – what kind of people would we be if we gave up on these activities?

These oppositions may sometimes seem very small in comparison to the forces they question and seek to transform. There is nothing new about that. Opponents of slavery, supporters of the universal franchise, Chartists and conscientious objectors were never part of a majority nor were they generally people with friends in high places. But what they achieved, against the resistance of what were once overwhelmingly powerful interests, is now mainstream. They must all have gone through very dark and lonely hours. Some lost their lives. All were held in contempt. None allowed the forces ranged against them to ever totally dim their light.

“I come in the little things, saith the Lord”. Eveleyn Underhill's poem 'Immanence' reminds us of the intrinsic greatness of what seems small, of what is easily overlooked or even dismissed as pointless.

In one of East Anglia's less beautiful towns, a place where poverty is perhaps rather more in evidence than pargetting, a 'little thing' takes place regularly. A group at which the former Civil Society minister might have been inclined to sneer, meets to knit.

Knit for Peace believes that knitting “brings people together and gives a way of helping others in need, providing benefits both to the knitter and the recipient. Based on our experience of developing Knit for Peace over the last few years, we have learned that knitting is extremely important as an activity that can be carried out right into extreme old age and helps improve long-term health.”

As well as bringing people together and obviating loneliness by this simple act of shared interest, the organisation donates ithe clothes and blankets which it knits to hospitals, women’s refuges, refugee drop in centres, prisons, community groups, and hospices as well as to developing countries. It may be a small and homely light, but the darkness is pushed back by its existence.

Evelyn Underhill's poem ends with these words:
In beggar’s part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead –
As man, to speak with man –
Till by such art
I shall achieve My Immemorial Plan,
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.

It is in accepting that a low lintel may prove the ingress to a space without borders and that small acts can combine to greatness, that we may find the hope to speak with our own kind and to plead for each other. Let's share the Plan.

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© 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/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.