The days following the EU referendum result filled me with an obsessive, disbelieving sadness that verged on grief. I hadn’t even countenanced a ‘leave’ victory, the case for ‘remain’ seemingly so sensible. I know not everyone who voted ‘leave’ did so for racist reasons, but because people like Nigel Farage campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket, it felt at that moment like the racists had won.
Amidst the emotional outpouring from both sides, calls for unity came quickly. What infuriated me about these exhortations from public figures was that no one seemed to know how to make it happen. ‘Talk is cheap’ I thought, ‘if we knew how to bridge the divide then we wouldn’t be in this mess!’ What grieves me more than anything are the deep divisions that have been revealed by this referendum. How can I do my bit to help heal these gaping wounds?
Last week I spent time in prayer, searching for a story to help make sense of my feelings. Quakers have a long tradition of reading the bible as a map to our inner life, and I found myself drawn to two stories. The first expresses where I’m at, and the second is where I want to be.
I am currently with the women at the empty tomb. The body of Jesus has gone. They are afraid and uncertain. I’m worried about the rise of UKIP, our government becoming increasingly right wing, and how this will distract from our efforts to respond to climate disruption. Is the Quaker community in Britain really up to the job of responding to the tasks at hand? Do we say we worship God, but really worship Security and Comfort?
I want to be in the story of another Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her pregnancy. One of the many things I like about Mary is that in Orthodox iconography she is associated with the burning bush discovered by Moses. This is because, like the bush, God lived within her without consuming her. There is something very Quaker about this story. The early Quakers spoke of Christ living in them, an idea referred to as ‘celestial inhabitation’. I want to be like Mary, expectantly waiting, aflame with God’s love and energised by God’s presence. In the image of childbirth there is a sense that the future will involve pain and risk, but there is real hope that new life will come.
I’m still awaiting a call to move forward. On Friday I went to the launch of the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ initiative in the middle of Birmingham. This movement is encouraging businesses, schools and other organisations to put up large banners proclaiming ‘Love Your Neighbour’ in the wake of an increase in reported racist abuse. We were asked to commit to individual ‘acts of kindness’ as part of the launch. It was on seeing this that my heart sank. I saw someone write ‘smile at a stranger’ as their commitment. I thought ‘are things so terrible that smiling at people has become a conscious commitment?’ I was also saddened by the idea of ‘individual’ acts of kindness. It’s individualism that has brought us to this place of isolation. I want to know what communal action can I be a part of. What is the Quaker community going to do? Do I need to join a political party or another campaigning group? Answers are still unforthcoming. I’m still at the empty tomb, trembling and bewildered, doing nothing, because I’m afraid.