Volume 1 Number 9
A Thread to Follow
01 May 1988
MRA is ten years older than I am, and I've known it all my life, man and child, which is my only qualification for this very personal view.
This year, Moral Re-Armament turns 50. That's quite a landmark in the life of any person or group; a time for celebration, yes, but also for evaluation, a chance to look ahead as well as back. MRA is ten years older than I am, and I've known it all my life, man and child, which is my only qualification for this very personal view.
The twentieth century's efforts to reshape human society through force, education, sociology, psychology and technology have been disappointing. The hopes placed in a series of utopias have melted like snow in the sun. The human factor, change in human nature, in motivation and living, hasn't been adequately tried - let alone found wanting.
The horrors of our age have so often sprung from the arrogant fanaticism of a few. This has given conviction a bad name, making the philosophy of `live and let live' dangerously attractive - to the point of tolerating anything, even the death of toleration.
In response to the fanatics of materialism, Buchman believed that people of faith must be passionately given to serving humanity and its Creator. His quest was for a concept that would include everyone, and exclude no-one. Nothing and no-one was too small or insignificant, and yet no challenge or problem too vast or intractable for God's power.
But what is Moral Re-Armament? And how does it work? It has few of the trappings of an organization, remains hard to grasp and define. It is discreet, but not secret or secretive. It aims to be blown by the Spirit - beyond the control of any person or group of people, often unseen and unheard.
MRA is a network of people around the world, working for God's will to be done on earth. It is a web of `chance' - or something more - spun as hundreds, thousands of people search for God's leading in their work, in their communities, in their homes and in their relationships. There is no chairman, no boss, no world headquarters to issue directives, no membership. It's simply a way of living.
The still small voice can speak to us clearly, if we stop to listen. Directives can come from within, bringing the relief that comes with an end to bluff - when we find ourselves out; when there are no more skeletons left hidden in the cupboard; when there's no justified criticism or reproach we cannot humbly accept. Gone the strain of trying to remember which of half a dozen possible roles we need to play to this particular audience. Perhaps the bravest thing I've done to date was a spring-cleaning of all my skeletons with my parents and brother. I can remember the relief and the sense of freedom as if it were yesterday.
Yet MRA goes a long way beyond a move for personal improvement. Often individuals may band themselves together in `teams' based on geography or on common concerns - such as education, industry or community relations.
The link between the individuals in these teams, and between groups in different countries, is not organizational or hierarchical, but one of trust in each other and of a shared commitment to 'remake the world'. This has dangers of fragility, lack of control and delay in decision-making. It has strengths of flexibility and individual freedom, responsibility and initiative.
In many countries there are some necessary minimum legal structures, to administer money and buildings. Often these are registered charities. But there is no formal bond between these different bodies. And there is no contractual link with the unpaid voluntary workers who give their time and energy to the functioning of these organisms, alongside the majority who live out the ideas in `ordinary' paid jobs.
I've worked for half my life now without salary. I, and MRA's more visible structures, homes and centres, survive and indeed flourish on voluntary gifts, large and small, to the perplexity of some of those whose job it is to keep an eye on such things.
When my wife and I applied for a council flat in Geneva, we were requested to present ourselves to the `Bureau of Surveillance and Inquiries', together with copies of our pay cheques. A puzzled but, fortunately for us, friendly functionary tried to fit us into the boxes on his standard form. `Live on voluntary gifts from sympathizers,' he typed.
The most visible part of MRA, perhaps, is the conferences. But I live in a city where there are thousands of international conferences every year. Most people are rather cynical about them: the hours of speeches, translated and printed at great cost, that aren't listened to or read. Every imaginable problem is debated, dissected, but the results on the ground rarely measure up to the lofty ideals enunciated.
MRA conferences gather individuals rather than representatives (officials leave their titles in the cloakroom) and aim for an exchange from the heart, rather than statements of position. Hundreds of thousands have attended these conferences, such as those at Caux in Switzerland, and at Asia Plateau in India. They provide a forum where people from all backgrounds and countries can meet and search for new approaches to the crises of the world - and in their own lives. The most important meetings are often the informal ones between two or three people who cannot meet on their home ground - and those between individuals and their consciences.
It is hard to capture the magical way in which, beyond any human design, a multicoloured tapestry is woven, where each person is a unique thread in the Master Weaver's hand.
Compromise a cop-out
The core of MRA is simple truths lived out, and a sense of direction, purpose and leading, springing from silence. Take, for instance, the senior Finnish civil servant, who decided before he put his foot on the first rung of the career ladder that, when issues came up, he would risk speaking up and being wrong, rather than remaining silent and letting a good idea get lost. `If we become "yes" men, we lose our freedom in no time,' he says.
His honesty may have cost him a coveted top job, but he remains a fulfilled man. He is convinced that his country's leaders need honest advice. And he believes it's a cop-out to make little compromises (even through silences) to get to the place where you can really make a difference - the compromises destroy any ability or desire to rock the boat when you get there. He has just been entrusted with an unlooked-for international responsibility, thanks to the trust he inspires.
The wonder is that we were each brought into the world for a purpose. Somewhere there's a plan for each of our lives, a gossamer thread to follow, which we'll lose again and again, but which we can find again too. For me, after the pain of a broken engagement, came the humorous healing thought, `You have been a bull in a china shop, but God loves bulls.' Through hurt and faced failure, I came to learn that God loves me like a father, not like a heavenly headmaster perpetually giving plus and minus points for good and bad conduct. The thread led me to get engaged again later, to the same person... `and they lived happily ever after'
And who knows where the threads will lead? A plague of locusts, for instance, led to the meeting between a French settler and a Moroccan nationalist which set off a chain of changed attitudes, easing the path to Moroccan independence. Again, Australia's reforms in Aboriginal education in the Seventies can be traced back to a young MP's visit to Caux in the Fifties.
And new threads are always appearing. A young French friend of ours was travelling on a bus, standing next to an African. As the bus swung round a corner, he trod on his neighbour's foot. He apologized, but a few swings later, it happened again. Recognizing the insignia in his neighbour's button-hole, he addressed him in Portuguese. His guess proved correct and they struck up a conversation. The African is a senior civil servant, a man of faith, serving his people and they have kept in touch.
And what about 50 years from now? Gazing into a crystal ball gets you nowhere - unless it fuels a determination to work to make the vision a reality. My list - a dream if you like - would start with an agricultural miracle in Africa, a case study for students of development. It would include the beginnings of new international economic relations, growing out of a realization that no systems will work without new motives in people. The economic problems of the 1980s have proved that unbridled selfishness only leads to unbridled chaos.
Our part in such developments may start with a friendship struck up in a bus or a train, with the thought to care for a foreign student, far from home and lonely, with the decision to mend a broken relationship. Some modern theorists believe that everything is inter-related. jokingly they suggest that, if we could but understand it, the beating of a butterfly's wings on the Amazon might relate to the start of a cyclone in Bangla Desh. This scaring knowledge can intimidate us into doing nothing, since any move or gesture may have fatal consequences. Or it can encourage us to believe that, however humble and inadequate we may feel, the actions and decisions we take may have effects beyond our dreams.