Sunday, July 17, 2011

Readings: Digging the Diggers


Over the past several days, I have been reading the introductory pages of The Works of Gerrard Winstanley, George H. Sabine, Editor. Gerrard Winstanley was a figure in the English Revolution of the 17th century. For Winstanley, religion and politics were inseparable. He was associated with a movement called the Levellers; more specifically with a sect which became known as the Diggers. He advocated a form of faith-based communism. There were some similarities between these groups and the Society of Friends, or Quakers. All of these groups came together in reaction to the formalism and structuralism of the mainstream Calvinism that dominated Reformation religion and politics, in 17th century England.

The essence of Winstanley’s religious belief was subjective realization and complete acceptance of the teaching that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Everything from the Star of Bethlehem to the Resurrection takes place within the individual through personal recognition of the Light within. Winstanley believed that this recognition would immanently become universal, establishing the rule of Love for all mankind. He saw the English Revolution as a sign that this much longed for transformation had already begun.

Below is a representative paragraph of Sabine’s commentary, followed by some words of Winstanley’s from a publication entitled “The Breaking of the Day of God”.
First, Sabine:

Winstanley’s ethics, like that of the Quakers, had a quality which might be called, for want of better terms, quietism or pacificism. It does not appear that Winstanley was literally a pacifist, in that he thought it wrong to bear arms. He was undoubtedly a pacifist, however, so far as concerned the realization of his communism. God, he says, puts no weapons into the hands of this saints to fight against reproaches, oppression, poverty, and temptation. The Levellers will not conquer by the sword, for Christ, who is the head Leveller, fights only with the sword of love, and this in the end will throw down all government and ministry that is lifted up by the imagination. In the end, Christ, the law of universal love, will reign, and this will be true magistracy, the light of truth, reason, humility, and peace. Like George Fox--and this was the root of Quaker pacificism --Winstanley distrusted the efficacy of force to accomplish any permanent moral results, and this was altogether in accord with the belief that morality begins with a change of heart. Hence the root of moral regeneration is a kind of passivity, submissiveness to the better impulse that will rise if it be given the chance, a silence and a waiting until the wiser thought and action ripens.

Then, Winstanley:

Tell a man that he hath no knowledge and no faith of God, and his heart swells presently and thinks you wrong him; tell him his own human learning and workings is abomination to the Lord and that he must lay aside his beloved actings and wait only upon God for knowledge and faith, and his heart swells and cannot endure to hear of waiting upon God: and truly God is more honored by our waiting than by the multitude of our self-actings.
…For the flesh grudges to give God his liberty to do with own what he will, and the flesh would have something in itself; it hath a secret grudging to acknowledge all wisdom, faith, and life must be given of God, and that his actings can get nothing. [ellipses are Sabine’s]

What Winstanley refers to in this context as “the flesh,” can be understood contemporarily as “the ego.” Sabine goes on at this point to say:

This sense of waiting and receiving, I have no doubt, is an authentic moral experience, quite apart from Winstanley’s antiquated terminology. There is a type of mind, as William James has said, that finds itself able to tap unsuspected sources of energy by dipping below the surface-play of consciousness.

The message is that the professor, the priest, and the politician all speak to the ego, in order to establish therein the fear and false pride which separates the individual from his true self, from his fellow-man, and from all knowledge of, and communication with, his God. I believe that Winstanley was onto something.
Link to "The Diggers Song" reportedly written by Gerrard Winstanley, as recorded by Chumbawamba: