No Moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount
The job of the peacemaker is "to stop war, to purify the world,
to get it saved from poverty and riches ... to heal the sick, to comfort
the sad, to wake up those who have not yet found God, to create joy and
beauty wherever you go, to find God in everything and in everyone."
I heard Muriel Lester say this when I was a senior at McMurray College
in Texas in 1951. In a campus-wide address, this perky Englishwoman went
on to say a number of uncommon things as she examined the Cold War from
the vantage point of the Kingdom of God.
Muriel Lester's brief visit to the campus, had a great impact on my life. I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and signed up for a Friends workcamp in a refugee village near Nuremberg, Germany. My experience was probably not unlike that of many, many others who came under the influence of Muriel Lester as she travelled around the world for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Her story is fascinating. Born of wealthy parents, she became a militant patriot at an early age, avidly reading the lives of military heroes and glorying in the exploits of the British Empire. She kept a scrapbook, covered with khaki, in which she put clippings and stories that demonstrated British military prowess and superiority. Then, at the age of 18, she came upon Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. "It changed the very quality of life for me," she later wrote. "Once your eyes have been opened to pacifism, you can't shut them again. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. You may bitterly regret the fact that you happen to be one of the tiny minority of the human race who have caught this angle of vision, but you can't help it." Tolstoy, she said, made her aware of "the peculiar importance of doing Jesus Christ the honor of taking Him seriously, of thinking out His teaching in terms of daily life, and then' acting on it even if ordered by police, prelates and princes to do the opposite."
Her new-found conviction was eventually to lead Muriel and her sister, Doris, to the Bow district of London's East End and the founding of the neighborhood house, Kingsley Hall. In time, Kingsley Hall grew to 11 fulltime workers, two buildings, a lecture series, men's and women's clubs, an adult school and a Sunday service. A sister Children's House sprang up, comprising a graded school, play hours, classes, health club, parents' association, holiday outings and a nursery school. The work progressed, often in the face of stiff opposition, especially in wartime. When World War I came, Kingsley Hall withstood the onslaught of inflamed patriots, police raids, anonymous letters, social boycott and organized hooliganism, as well as a hit by a German bomb. At open-air meetings, Muriel Lester spoke out against war, calling it as outmoded as "cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and duelling ... an insult to God and man ... a daily crucifixion of Christ."
"We refused at Kingsley Hall to pronounce a moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount for the duration of the war," she wrote. "We could not conceive of God as a nationalist. We could not suddenly look upon our brother man as an enemy just because he chanced to have been born on the other side of a river or a strip of sea."
From the FOR's founding in 1914, Muriel Lester joined with other Christians in opposition to war, violence and falsehood. She badgered the clergy to include "the enemy" in their public prayers of intercession. After the war, hearing of children starving on the continent due to the blockade of the defeated enemies, she and other women tried to get editors, governmental leaders and clergy to work against such inhumanity. When the response was too slow, she wrote: "We decided to turn our bodies into newspapers and to walk the streets of London from East to West, bearing posters." They went, in single file, dressed in mourning, and carrying signs that read: "It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones should perish."
Kingsley Hall was concerned with deprivation in the East End. From it came a campaign against bad housing, rats, slumlords and public indifference. For five years Muriel Lester served as the socialist alderman in the London borough of Poplar. Because of the "compulsory want" under which so many struggled, she and others decided to embrace "voluntary poverty" as a way of identifying with and serving the majority of the human race. Their slogan: "The only Christian, the only rational, basis for the distribution of goods is need." When Muriel's father died, leaving her an annual inheritance, she felt that as a Christian and as a socialist she could not use the money for herself, nor even for Kingsley Hall. She asked the trade unions, churches and women of the district to set up a committee to decide how best to use the money. The result was a program of "Home Helps," whereby "middle-aged women [were] given half-time employment. [They] could be called in by any woman, at any time of need, to look after the home if one of the children had suddenly to be taken to the hospital, cook dinner if mother were ill, clean house or do laundry in any emergency, mind the children if the mother wanted to go out for recreation or pleasure." Home Helps was consistent with Kingsley Hall's ongoing concern for women.
It was Muriel Lester's concern that Kingsley Hall serve the actual and pressing needs of the common people. She looked at it this way: "Day and night my mind was set on this job of getting a little community in East London to function as servants and lovers of their neighbors, cooperating with God by restoring their birthright to His dispossessed children, the birthright of music, art, poetry, drama, camps, open-air life, self-confidence, the honor of building up a new social order, the Kingdom of Heaven, here and now in Bow."
The staff at Kingsley Hall didn't include a janitor. All of them took their turn in cleaning. They practiced a regular discipline of prayer-15 minutes before breakfast, 10 minutes before tea and at 10:00 p.m. "In this rarefied air of constant stimulation we were grateful for the quietness of silent prayer. Blazing a new trail is intimidating, and it was downright frightening to contemplate what might result if one forgot for a single day to consult the compass."
In 1926, Muriel Lester made the first of many trips to India, staying with Gandhi at his Ashram for one month. He told her to take the Vow of Truth, which is to search out the truth, however difficult, and then do whatever is necessary to correct any falsehood or injustice you have discovered. As a result, she returned to England to work for home rule for India. Later, when Gandhi came to England, he stayed at Kingsley Hall for three months, much preferring the ordinary people of the East End to Downing Street's officialdom.
Lester stood up in Hyde Park and spoke for the FOR and the transforming way of nonviolence and service. In 1934, she was named ambassador- at- large by the International FOR; for the next 30 years she travelled all over the world on its behalf.
She was in the U.S. when World War II broke out. Now speaking to hostile audiences, she did not waver from her pacifism: "I asked how an idea, a philosophy, or a religion, could be eternally true if it changed its nature according to the temporal activities and policies of men ... It seemed to me irrational to expect to overcome these world evils by killing each other's wives and children. This generation, though liking to appear hard-boiled and realist, was being naive, romantic, unscientific." Her conviction, as always, was rooted in her religious belief: "Given is the word. Given publicly, on the first Good Friday, on a hill, in the ' sight of all, was the visible demonstration of the only permanent way to overcome Evil. Human nature demands something more enduring than the unquiet equilibrium of rival powers."
Lester travelled throughout the U.S., urging that food be sent to starving women and children in European countries caught between Nazi aggression and the Allied Blockade. She went from the U.S. to Latin America, where she received word that Kingsley Hall and her little cottage had been bombed in the London Blitz. She cabled home: "From Kingsley Hall's broken body, the bread of life can be better and more widely distributed. Christ is in the midst of her. God has us all in his hands."
Her pamphlet, "Speed the Food Ships," and other statements came to the attention of the British government. Winston Churchill, zealously carrying out the food blockade, was upset that this outspoken Britisher was roaming around undermining his efforts. In Trinidad harbor, British authorities took her from an American vessel and interned her behind barbed wire for six weeks. She wrote in her diary: "Excess in drink, vice or gambling won't draw attention to you, but thinking independently will. If it leads you to act generously, to identify yourself with the poor or the prisoner or the foreigner or the Negro, the vested interests will be displeased."
Finally, she was transferred to London's Holloway jail; she had been there before, but as a lecturer. After she was released, she continued her service work in London. With the war's end, she resumed her world pilgrimages for the International FOR, witnessing to the way of life that removes the occasion for wars.
Muriel Lester died on February 11, 1968, one year to the day after the
death of AJ. Muste. So long as we have a reverence for genius and courage,
the witness of her life and writings will continue to influence those
who seek the way of peace.