the friend online
02 October 2009


Being and doing – this is the Quaker way. Marian Liebmann finds it is a powerful combination

I’ve often envied people who have ‘thunderclaps’ of spiritual insights, revelations that clarify the whole of life and point in new directions. It hasn’t been like that for me. It’s been more of a gradual journey, to arrive on a path that feels right for me and has some spiritual meaning.

As a child of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, I was always aware of the Holocaust and its effects. How could any group of people perpetrate such crimes on any other group, let alone people who had done nothing wrong? I grew up determined to try to prevent anything similar happening, and joined many initiatives to combat racism against black people.

My parents were not religious but had my brother and me christened so that we would to be ‘truly British’. As a young adult I began to find Anglican beliefs and practices restrictive and unrelated to daily life, and was drawn towards Quakers, for their silent worship, their lack of binding creeds, their respect for all (‘that of God in everyone’), and their commitment to social action – peace-making, race relations, helping unpopular but vital causes – putting ‘being’ and ‘doing’ together and acting with integrity. I knew about Quaker involvement in the criminal justice system, and that it was based on their historical experience of being in prison themselves, but it was not a world I knew much about at that stage.

I studied science at university and then trained as a teacher. I also started a numeracy and literacy scheme for African-Caribbean immigrants, and found I enjoyed informal adult education more than school teaching, so began to look for a job in this field. I joined a ground-breaking day centre for ex-offenders in Gloucester, which also employed some ex-offenders as social workers. In many ways the centre was organised along similar lines to Quakers, with a non-hierarchical staff structure and clients’ transition from ‘visitor’ to ‘member’ being one of personal commitment.

I learnt about the criminal justice system – how ex-offenders and ex-prisoners were discriminated against, how counter-productive prisons were, and more. I came to see the value of ‘seeing that of God’ in people conventionally thought of as ‘a waste of space’. I became passionate about criminal justice issues as they connected with my growing experience of Quakers, and it was at this time that I made the commitment to join.

In the day centre we didn’t spend much time thinking about victims of crime. It was an ex-offender colleague who helped a young man addicted to stealing cars to think about the effect of his actions on his victims. Later, after the birth of my daughter, I applied for a job with Victim Support, thinking it would be an interesting counterbalance to my work with offenders. What I discovered shocked me profoundly – in many ways victims of crime were treated as badly as, or worse than, offenders.

In 1984 a Friend from our Meeting passed me a scruffy piece of paper about a weekend mediation course in London, run by two facilitators from Friends Suburban Project, Philadelphia. ‘I think this is something for you’, she said. I rang up but the course was full. Then, two days before the course, there was a cancellation, so I dropped everything and ran. It was very intensive and hard work, but the lights went on in my head – here was a process that had great power (even in its very lack of conventional power) and was a peace process I could embrace. I’d often unable to join demonstrations and marches because I could see both (or many) sides of an argument – but these same qualities were valued in mediation. It also suggested a process that might offer something to both victims and offenders in the criminal justice system.

I used the training to help with our Meeting’s initiative to start a community mediation service in Bristol, where I still practise as a volunteer mediator. I went on to work in the probation service, where I facilitated several meetings between victims and offenders. There is something very moving and almost biblical in seeing the reconciliation of two people who have been at loggerheads or been in positions where one has harmed the other – this is restorative justice at its most poignant and practical.

Practical peace-making and restorative justice are outgrowths of that profound respect for human beings that is a core Quaker belief. This gives me the passion to continue my involvement as a path in life and in Quakerism – the two are intertwined.

Marian Liebmann works as a trainer and consultant in restorative justice.

Marian Liebmann


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A testimony to Love
Judy Kirby, Editor
Circles of silence
Gerard Benson
A view of Quakers
David Wood
Testimony to peace
Helen Steven
Middle East witness
Ann Wright
Peace for all
Stephen Hanvey
Living the testimonies
Helen Drewery
Harvey Gillman
Testimony to Equality
Jonathan Dale
Committed relationships
Phil Lucas
Quaker thought in literature
Marina Lewycka
Quaker thought in poetry
Gerard Benson
Ros Smith
Marian Liebmann
Equality and social justice
Belinda Hopkins
Testimony to Simplicity
Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton
Laurie Michaelis
Testimony to Truth
Linda Pegler
Integrity in public life
Tony Stoller

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