Sunday, 1 March 2015

Russian Aggression v Western Self Righteousness

I remember playing Cowboys and Indians when I was little. There was never any doubt about who were the goodies and who were the baddies. The Indians were obviously bad. There wore war paint, made scary seagull noises and scalped people. The cowboys on the other hand were the good guys. How could John Wayne or Errol Flynn be anything else? They normally died heroic deaths protecting the the land that they loved. Even a simplistic study of history reveals this as the myth that it was. In fact it was the opposite. It was nothing short of genocide. As Martin Luther King once said –

‘We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade.’

This has been part of a western self-righteousness that has never gone away. How I loved watching Zulu when I was 10!

I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that this self righteousness has gone away. In fact it has informed foreign policy for much of my life. I think we need to be conscious of this when judging recent actions of President Putin. This is not in any way to defend his aggression. He has clearly exploited unrest in the Ukraine to promote expansionism. The annexing of Crimea was nothing short of good old fashioned imperialism. Nobody seriously doubts that he is behind the rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine and there are now serious questions about the recent killing of a political opponent –

So many in the west are genuinely concerned that we are heading towards another cold war. But we should be equally concerned about our own self righteousness. The American writer and academic, Noam Chomsky was recently interviewed on Channel 4 news. He reminded us that we need to understand the extent of Russian insecurity. Ukraine borders Russia. They have been drawing closer and closer to the West. On several occasions in the last few years there have been suggestions that the Ukraine might become part of NATO.

We can dismiss this by asking what Russia has to fear in the 21st Century. But in 1983 the USA invaded the former British Colony of Grenada following a left wing coup. American troops ‘arrested’ a number of Cubans and Russians. This was a rare occasion when Margaret Thatcher openly criticised Ronald Reagan. America was not afraid to be aggressive when its interests were threatened.

We could also mention the Cuban Missile crisis or the earlier, disastrous, efforts by Britain and France to gain control of the Suez Canal by force.  Other countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya come to mind. We moved in as the good guys and left them in a state of chaos out of which have grown extremist groups like Islamic State.

Noam Chomsky asked a significant question – what would the USA have done in the 1980s if Mexico had declared an interest in joining the Warsaw Pact??

None of this justifies Russia’s recent behaviour. But her mistrust of the west has some logical basis.

Whilst the west is right to be concerned it needs to examine the many logs in its own eyes…hmm where does that come from?

The great Stephen Hawking has recently commented that scientific disasters are far less likely to destroy the world than aggression.

Food for thought?




Sunday, 19 October 2014

Raining burning sulphur and inclusive marriage

I have had two discussions about inclusive marriage on Facebook recently. 

One was a very balanced debate with a former vicar who clearly read the bible very differently from me. Despite our differences it was a respectful exchange of views. The other was less pleasant. One contributor simply said that I was wrong and that they would pray for my enlightenment – possibly the ultimate evangelical put down!

But what was interesting was that on both occasions reference was made to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. I have recently re-read Genesis 19 in some detail. To be honest it was a bit of a surprise.

We all know the plot. Two angels visit Sodom and are welcomed by Lot. A gang gathers at the house demanding that the angels are brought out – ‘so that we can have sex with them..’ This is shocking behaviour, only matched by Lot’s offer to the gang that they take his virgin daughters instead. We are all familiar with the destruction of the cities as they face God’s judgement. The argument seems to be that the actions of the men of Sodom are the same as those who are gay in the 21st Century; therefore they should not be allowed to marry.

Now there are a few obvious flaws with this. It places more emphasis on the same sex issue more obvious crime of ‘gang rape’. The intended victims were not, of course, human men at all. But let’s leave all that aside for a minute and look at the story in detail.

The first thing to note is that the angels were there to destroy the cities in any event. They tell Lot in verse 13 that they have been sent to destroy them. So they were going to get the burning sulphur treatment anyway. In fact if you go back and read chapter 18 you see that Abraham is told about the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So there must another reason beyond the actions of the mob. I suppose the obvious response is that this was just one episode and if this is how they lived, then they deserved all they got. But there is nothing in the story to suggest that this was the main problem.

So what was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? According to the prophet Ezekiel it was something quite different. In Chapter 16 of that book we read – ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’

That moves the discussion in a completely different direction. So the real sin was not caring for the poor. There is far far more in the bible about that, than there is about same sex relationships.

I have written before about the need to take care with factually literal reading of the bible.

We have to be even more careful about grafting our ideas onto stories written in a different age. This is a story of shocking violence. I think it highly unlikely that hot sulphur really came down from the sky to destroy everyone in these cities. There is a broad message about God’s protection of those who are faithful to him. And at his anger at those who ignore the cries of the poor and weak. 

On a closer reading this is a million miles away from any current debate about the nature of marriage. It is one of those difficult Old Testament stories that might contain some broad message. But to extract an argument that somebody in a committed gay relationship is somehow guilty of the sin of these two cities is both inappropriate and a bit embarrassing.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

ISIS to bomb or not to bomb

So Parliament has voted in support of limited military action against ISIS in Iraq. And it has done so with a thumping majority and general public support. Only 43 MPs opposed the proposal. So it is fair to say that there are few dissenting voices. This is surprising because it appears to be extremely dangerous and poorly considered.

There is no doubt that ISIS is bad. They are a violent, brutal and oppressive group who are intent on removing any opposition without mercy or humanity. It sickens us when we see thousands or ordinary people fleeing for their lives. We reel with horror at the thought of their terrifying videos of the execution of western hostages. Of course ISIS is not only brutal regime that cuts heads off. Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people earlier this year for offences including sorcery and including one ‘criminal’ with mental health issues –

These killings get less exposure because the ones they kill are not so close to us. This doesn’t in any way justify ISIS, but there is no great clamour to bomb Saudi Arabia because are our friends.

Buy my main concern is that there is no clarity at all about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It changes by the day. Not long ago we supported anyone who opposed the Assad regime in Syria, which included ISIS. Now we are bombing the same group. The whole dilemma was brilliantly summed up in a recent letter to the Daily Mail –

There seems to be such a desperate need to do something, to bomb someone that we just have to wade in regardless.

We cannot forget that the West has some responsibility for this whole mess. We invaded Iraq in 2003, in the face of huge opposition, to eradicate weapons of mass destruction which did not exist. However brutal Saddam Hussein was, the outcome of our intervention has been nothing short of a disaster. In fact this seems to have been a feature of western interventions in a region so rich in those resources that we need to maintain our lifestyles.

Many people support this military action because ISIS persecutes Christians. And we should be shocked by the behaviour of any group that kills and oppresses others purely because of their beliefs. There are in fact many groups who are in danger because of this violent group –

Persecution of anyone because of their beliefs is wrong. It is no more wrong just because it is directed at members of our particular group. Would there be the same public support if the horror of ISIS was limited to the Yazidis?

The Christian way should always be one of peace and reconciliation. I cannot think of any example where Jesus advocated military action. I would not go as far as to say that war is never an option. But on this occasion it seems that we are enthusiastically supporting it because ‘something’ has to be done. But the outcome is likely to be massive aggravation, radicalisation of many young Muslims and a never ending spiral of violence in a volatile region.

So for all of these reasons I am well and truly behind the small minority in parliament who voted no.


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pride - a movie not to be missed!

It is fair to say that the 1980s were not easy years for anybody concerned with social justice. This was the decade of riots in Brixton and Liverpool and of the Labour Party being torn apart. It was also the decade of the miners’ strike of 1984 – 1985 as hard pressed communities fought against Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures. For anyone interested in the background of that strike there was an excellent summary in the New Statesman Magazine earlier this year –

Those communities were eventually worn down, most deep mines were closed and almost 150,000 jobs were lost.

This is the back cloth for Pride, a film written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus. It is the true story of an unlikely alliance between a group of Lesbian and Gay activists and a small mining village in the welsh valleys. The L and G group led by Mark Ashton see a synergy between the oppression experienced by them on a daily basis and the way that the striking miners were treated by the establishment. They decide to help and go on to establish Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and adopt the small mining village of Dulais. The group eventually became one of the biggest contributors to the miners’ cause. It was not an easy alliance. A small mining village in the 1980s was certainly not ready to welcome the LGSM. One local bigot contributes to a press story about ‘pits and perverts’. The phrase is brilliantly stolen by the group as they put on the Pits and Perverts Benefit Concert headlined by Bronski Beat, a real event from December 1984.

The drama and the humour of the film develop as two very different communities begin to work together for a common cause. The script is sharp and witty, particularly when the middle aged welsh women grill the LG group about their lifestyles –

‘Is it true that lesbians are….you know…all vegetarians?’

And to two gay men –

‘If you live together as husband and wife which one…..does the shopping?’

There are many sub plots within the groups as they get to know and accept each other. It is a wonderful film and one which should be seen by anyone who wants to understand how oppressed people feel and live; and laugh and sing! There are great performances throughout but particularly from Ben Schnetzer as Mark, Faye Marsay as Steph and also from Bill Night and the ever brilliant Imelda Staunton. 

In one of my earlier blogs I talked of the need to move away from talking of equal rights as an issue. I said that we needed to see the real people behind the discussion. 

How timely therefore that this film comes along and demonstrates the humanity of a group who were marginalised as 'perverts' but showed a humanity way beyond their peers.

Alongside the humour and the great 80s music is the tragic story of Mark Ashton. He is the young gay communist who inspires and leads the group and who sadly died in 1987 from AIDS aged just 26. He is an unsung hero of his age who merits more attention than he has been given. On his death Jimmy Summerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards penned a moving tribute – For a Friend –

If you see no other film this autumn please go and see Pride. It is a great night’s entertainment and will change many people’s ideas of the LGBT community. For many it will also shed a new light on the miners’ struggle in the 80s.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear Mr Newmark - I cannot knit but I have a voice!

Brooks Newmark is certainly not the first politician to come out with a comment which is so alarmingly of touch with reality, that it belongs in science fiction. He won’t be the last. But his recent comments about the role of charities must justify some award, such as honorary citizenship of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Brooks who? He is the recently appointed Minister for Civil Society. He has been in the news this week for saying that charities should keep out of the realm of politics. In one sentence he has managed to insult the entire voluntary sector by saying that charities should be ‘sticking to their knitting’. The comment come as politicians discuss the Lobbying Act which could restrict the ability of charities to lobby the government.

It is easy to dismiss this as the harmless rant of a patronising idiot. But he has a senior political position and what he says is noticed.

He clearly has no idea at all of what is done by charities and voluntary workers. I am involved in two charities. The one in which I play an active role is the North West Legal Support Trust (NWLST). This Trust raises funds and makes grants to organisations which provide free legal advice to those in need. The fact that this trust exists at all is a political issue. Politicians have taken it upon themselves to virtually wipe out Legal Aid in the UK. At a time when more and more people are needing advice for debt, family breakdown and benefits, they have had the gateway to advice shut firmly in their faces. The government pushed through the cuts in the face of a huge campaign. The story of that struggle can be found in Patrick Torsney’s book Saving Justice –

That was, and still is, a political struggle. Ensuring that the citizens of our country have access to our country’s justice system regardless of wealth is ultimately a matter of politics. Anyone who cares about justice for all has to fight attempts to remove people's rights. But in the meantime, those in need cannot be turned away and so it falls to charities to try and fill the gap. Someone needs to tell Mr. Newmark that these are serious, cutting edge issues.

For me this is also a Christian imperative. Jesus said that as we feed the hungry, welcome outsiders, visit the sick, clothe the naked we are feeding, welcoming, visiting and clothing him. For me, this includes campaigning on behalf of those who have nothing. That means wading into political arguments. It certainly does not involve knitting.

The same goes for food banks. I have written on this before –

In the UK, in 2014 people should not have to rely on charitable hand outs to get a meal on their table. This again is a political issue. The need has come about as a result of the actions of ministers. The need can be resolved by politicians. Those who work tirelessly to meet the ever growing need are the ones who have earned the right to be heard. It is an affront almost beyond words to say that they should stay at home and do the knitting.

In one sense he should be right. Volunteer workers should not have to involve themselves. It should be the role of the state to look after those in greatest need. But until this happens the burden will fall on charities, churches and voluntary groups.

David Cameron has talked about a Big Society in which we all care for those in need –

But he cannot say this and at the same time permit ministers to dismiss the concerns of those charities who are trying to do just that, when nobody else will.

Mr Newman may think that he can silence people by legislation, removing funds and insults. But none of that will take away the need. And while that need exists we will not go away as easily as he hopes!

End of serious rant.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discovering a love for the bible - for the first time!

I mentioned in my last blog that the work of Brian D McLaren had helped me through difficulties with The Bible. So let’s elaborate on that a bit.

Over the last five years or so the bible has come alive for me. I have discovered a depth, richness and wisdom that were never there before. Over a period of time the bible firstly became a problem, then irrelevant and eventually died. And it almost took my faith with it.

My Christian story is like many others. From my teens I was in a strict brethren assembly for nearly 15 years. This was a great environment for learning about what was in the bible. But it was the last place on earth to question its content. The bible was inerrant in every way. To question whether there was a real Adam and Eve, Noah or 900 year old Methuselah was unthinkable. The answer to any question was ‘the bible says’. The question that followed any statement was – ‘do have a chapter and verse for that bro?’

Even as I moved into the more ‘progressive’ thinking of events like Spring Harvest and New Wine there was still that underlying mind set. The bible had to be factually literal. If it wasn’t then the whole basis of our faith collapsed and the whole basis of our social acceptance disappeared.

The questions that were always there became more problematic the more I studied the bible itself. And there was no shortage of problems –

  1. A literal belief in every statement required an acceptance of facts which in any other context would not be given a second thought. The sun could not possibly have ‘stood still’ in Joshua 10. Where was it planning to go? People do not have conversations with snakes and did Balaam really have a conversation with his ass, so to speak? (Numbers 22). Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish and stay in its belly for three days? Even St Augustine struggled with that one –
  2. There are very obvious contradictions. We have three gospels which give one account of Jesus and a fourth which is almost entirely different. We have a letter to the Galatians saying - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Then we have the writer of Timothy saying that a woman is not permitted to teach and have authority over a man.
  3. There is sickening violence. Did God really kill the entire firstborn of Egypt; possibly one of the greatest acts of genocide in history? Did God tell Joshua to kill 12,000 men and women in Ai, to plunder the city and to hang the king of Ai on a tree? Was God really angry with Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, children and infants? And how does that tally with a god of love and mercy?

We could go on. These difficulties were always there but were suppressed because, well the bible was God’s word and He knew best. My real crisis came when I was asked to speak on the massacre at Ai and had to admit that I had nothing to say! In the light of the ‘all or nothing’ mentality the whole building began to collapse. If the baby had to be thrown out with the bath water then so be it.

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that you then have the freedom to face things head on. There is no longer any other agenda driving you. From this point I began to actually study the bible itself and also how and when it was written. Suddenly there was a bigger picture that made it all so much clearer. I was helped here by Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong and more recently Marcus Borg (see below).

I firstly explored where the whole idea of inerrancy came from. For many, the answer is obviously found in 2 Timothy 3:16. But let’s break that verse down –

‘all scripture’ – the writer is manifestly not talking about the bible. There was no such thing at that time. We were at least a century away from that. Even the Hebrew cannon was not yet complete. All the writer knew was the law and the prophets. There has be a considerable stretching of logic to extend this to the bible as we know it.

‘is God breathed’ – this expression is all about giving life. We are told in Genesis 2 (the second creation story) that God breathed into Adam ‘the breath of life’. So, according to that story I am God breathed. But I am certainly not inerrant. So, we are told that, ‘all scripture’ has its life and vibrancy from God but that is a long long way from a claim to inerrancy.

‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. I have to confess to ignoring that part of the verse for many years. So scripture is useful. It has a role to play. It is important. But there is nothing say that this means that every single statement has to be literally and factually accurate.

There are two conclusions from looking at this verse. Firstly it is highly questionable, in any event, that something is inerrant just because it claims to be – I did once hear a Spring Harvest speaker say that. Secondly the bible itself does not actually make any such claim.

Rather than undermine my faith this discovery of the patently obvious was liberating. It opened the door to enable me deal with all of the above problems, and more.

It certainly resolved the question of violence. Those books are ancient documents written by humans in a very violent age. Most other writings from that time concern warriors who wished to prove that their god was greater then others. It was part of the literature of the day. The stories do not reveal a violent God but are the written record of verbal accounts that had been around for hundreds of years. That was how stories were told at that time.

If it is no longer essential to hold on to the literal factuality of the bible then the bible can become a living resource to teach us so much about God and ourselves. The one thing I have learned is that there is all the difference in world between saying the bible is true and saying that every detail is factually literal. In fact the truth is not dependent on whether the stories are recording historical facts or not.

For example Brian McLaren deals with Adam and Eve in his latest book –

‘The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting god as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.’ *

So it matters not whether this really happened or not. The real truth lies behind the story, not the actual history. The same goes for Jonah. Once we see it as a parable about one man’s journey to enlightenment, it becomes so much more than a cute, if rather unlikely Sunday School story. We are very comfortable with the parables that Jesus told. Nobody needs to believe that there really was a sower. The bible is packed with stories which reveal God to us. And it is the truth within them that is relevant. If we never get out of the need to prove that it is all factual despite our intelligence and experience, then we are in trouble.

This does not mean that the bible is of no value. In fact it is of supreme value, if read correctly. These books are the gateway to us understanding God. Not because they were supernaturally dictated, but because they were written by those who were expressing their experience of God.

So how do we read the bible?

(a) A reasonable starting point is our own intelligence and experience. We draw the truth from the bible as it it is revealed to us following careful and prayerful study. If everything that we know tells us that the massacre of children is wrong then we read those stories from that perspective.

(b) We must explore the times and the context in which particular passages were written. So if, in Romans 1 Paul is writing about the unacceptable behaviour of his day - including homosexual activity by heterosexuals, we have to careful about applying those words to sincere same sex relationships today just by word association.

(c) We must look at the whole story and not use bible verses like fortune cookies. I remember years ago booking a speaker for a youth group. He let us down on the night and left a phone message to say ' -can't make it. Romans 8 - 28',  as if that coded message made everything alright.

(d) Read the bible through the lens of Jesus. He said that he was 'the way, the truth and the life'. This has usually been used to promote the exclusivity of the christian faith. But I am not so so sure. If you look at the the context, he was answering a question about finding God. His answer was that if you want to know what God is like then 'look at me'. So the bible has to be read from the same perspective. Jesus has to be our starting point in finding the truth of the bible.

(e) Read it imaginatively, always look for the truth behind the words.

These are just some ideas but the possibilities are endless.

The books of the bible were written in a particular time and place. We need to read them from where we are. We should not translate an ancient cultural world to today. We need to seek the truth within the books and interpret that truth within our world.

It is this process that has brought the bible back to life for me.  It has been transformed from a dry, unmovable rule book to a rich well of truth and life.

This is neither a liberal nor conservative viewpoint. It is the result an honest struggle over many years.

*Brian D McLaren We Make The Road By Walking – Hodder and Stoughton 2014

Helpful reading –

Karen Armstrong The Bible, the biography – Atlantic Books 2007

Marcus J Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Barnes and Noble 2001

Brian D McLaren Generous Orthodoxy – Zondervan Book 2006

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Greenbelt 2014 - Travelling Light - some thoughts

I am just back from this years Greenbelt festival at its new venue – Boughton House, Kettering.

The theme for this years’ festival was Travelling Light. As I was lugging my camping gear from the car park to the camping area I was beginning to wish I had done just that. But more of that later.

The new site is beautiful. Its setting in the grounds of the lovely Boughton House is quite idyllic. It gave the whole weekend more of a festival appeal and allowed for venues such as the Grove to come into their own. This is a small outdoor space which was used particularly well by those involved in Forest Churches, which explore the relationship between faith and our natural world. My wife Jackie and I went to the waning moon event on the Friday evening and found it fascinating and quite moving. (I should say that there were those who thought it actually involved Wayne mooning but that is another story.) Some say that it is a bit New Age but in fact it is the opposite. I have found some interesting stuff here –

Greenbelt is a festival which includes speakers, often with a radical edge, music and performing arts. One speaker who is worth a mention was Nadia Bolz-Weber from Denver, Colorado. I have heard her before and recently read her book in which she writes of her experience of watching 24 hrs of God TV non stop*! She speaks as she writes – it is pacey, funny and powerful. Two things stick in the memory. One was her comment on LGBT friends. She reminded us that we do not welcome them because they are a project; so that we can feel that we are ‘in touch’ and ‘inclusive’. Rather, we welcome them because they are not really different from the rest of us. We are all in need of God’s grace. In another session she talked about her own church which is the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Her congregation includes many who are on the edge of society including the homeless, those with addictions and ‘drag queens’. But they only really struggled with welcoming strangers when a group of 50 something, respectable citizens from the suburbs turned up! Hang on that’s me!

Brian D McLaren has been a huge influence for me and I enjoyed hearing him on the bible and on other religions. I have read most that he has written on these subjects and he has helped me get through a number of difficult times especially with the bible! He is one of those speakers that I could listen to for hours. I also confess that became a bit of a groupie by going to get a signed copy of his latest book, We Make The Road by Walking. I had the briefest of chats and was tempted to ask for a selfie but bottled it.

The best performance, by a mile came from the brilliant poet Harry Baker –

My name is Harry Baker,
Harry Baker is my name
If your name was Harry Baker
Our names would be the same

So you get the idea! It is unique, machine gun slam poetry. His use of words is pure genius. You can catch him on You Tube doing the magnificent Paper People –

He is surely destined for greatness.

On the music side I caught Levi Hummon at the Canopy Tent. A great young singer songwriter from Nashville who appeared alongside his dad Marcus Hummon. Think Jake Bugg does bluegrass and you get a vague idea! And there was Sinead O’Connor. I didn’t know what to expect. She looked like an older version of, well, Sinead O’Connor. The first couple of songs didn’t do much. But I have to say that I warmed to her as she got going. She still has a voice to die for. She did a great version of her one huge hit which feels like a lot more than 7 hours and 16 days ago. But the highlight was the beautiful Thank You For Hearing Me. She can still rock it with the best them and was a real and pleasant surprise.

One other highlight was the fantastic reception for Vicky Beeching as she appeared in the Big top for a session on marriage - 

And we cannot forget the volunteers who man the  various stalls in G-Source - particularly those supporting Palestine which is a subject close to my heart.

So overall it was a great success and congratulations to the organisers for the brave decision to go for something so different from the previous years at Cheltenham Racecourse. There were quite a few teething problems. Access to the site was a nightmare and many people, particularly those with mobility problems, had a major struggle to get from the car parks to the camping area where no vehicles were allowed. That will need to be looked at next year.

But this also brought out the best. The Greenbelt volunteers were heroes as they helped us brave the elements on the final day. And there were many younger and healthier campers who helped others to drag their gear back through mud. A special word goes to the women who helped me pull my trolley up the hill from the campsite who turned out to be a vicar from a church in Bootle..

I also noticed lots of queues at women’s loos so maybe a few more of them next year too!

But I have come away with much to think about and will certainly be there in 2015 – although possibly in a bed and breakfast!!


Photo curtesy of Jackie!