Monday, 14 October 2013

Tweet Salvation



I have often blogged on my Virtual Lawyer page about the legal minefield that is the world of social media. Time and again we have seen people lose their jobs or even face criminal action because they tweeted before they thought -


There is no doubting the massive influence of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. My LinkedIn profile is currently telling me that my connections potentially link me to 12m people! That is population of a reasonably sized country. The potential reach of Twitter is even greater. If each of my followers retweet something to each of theirs we are talking about a reach of millions, within a few minutes.

That is a sobering thought which should certainly make anybody stop and reflect before pushing the tweet button!

So is there a spiritual dimension to all this? Should Christians give it a second thought? Many will just avoid it as being a waste of time. I remember once being told that my interest in politics was wrong because the bible says – ‘All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient’. (! Cor 6:12). But to adopt that attitude to social media is a bit like saying the air we breathe is nothing to do with us. It is part of our world. It is how the majority of younger people communicate. Avoidance is not an option.

Another option might be to dabble from the safety of exclusively Christian material such as daily bible verses or church Facebook pages. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. But it keeps our world very small.

In fact it can all be used very positively.

In my ‘dark side’ blog I talked about those who send insulting tweets – often known as trolling. There is certainly a need for the opposite attitude – to turn the other tweet! If I read something that makes an impression I will always try to retweet or share it. There is nothing quite like the encouragement of knowing that somebody has taken the time to read what you say and acknowledge it in some way. It is even possible to express disagreement in a way that maintains dignity and integrity.

There is also, no better way of keeping in touch with what is happening around us. Up until about three years ago I struggled with Twitter. I just didn’t get it. Then I went on holiday to Egypt and was there when the crowds first gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo. I became addicted to the live tweets coming from the square. Our media and press can give us one perspective but there is nothing to match the voices of those who are there.

The power of social media is undeniable. Which is why we should embrace it, but embrace it with care. It does irritate me when I read Facebook updates which are being published to the world but obviously intended for one particular person who has stepped out of line. It is a bit like shouting an insult across a crowded room, only from the comfort of your own home. In fact that image is often helpful – to imagine the thousands who might read what you say before pushing the button.

Social Media is here to stay. In fact even our current platforms could soon be out of date. It gets a bad press and sometimes for good reasons. But of itself it is neither good nor evil. It has the potential for both. In fact it is a bit like humanity itself…


Sunday, 29 September 2013

Delhi Rape Case - a reflection

This blog is based on a talk I did on 15th September, just a couple of days after Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Mukesh Singh were sentenced to death for their part in the now, infamous, Delhi gang rape case.

The facts are now familiar to most. In December 2012 the 23 year old victim and her friend had been to a multiplex cinema in the Munirka area of Delhi. They planned to get the night bus home. That could be a scene from any modern city. But there had been lured into a trap. The bus was, in fact, out of service. The Defendants attacked them. She was gang raped. She and her friend were beaten with iron bars. Finally they were stripped naked and thrown from the moving bus. The victim underwent surgery in Delhi and was then transferred to Singapore but tragically died within a few days.

By any standards this was an horrific crime. It led to an outpouring of anger across the world and especially among India’s young people. Six men were arrested. No action was pursued against one of them. One of them hung himself in prison and the other four were convicted and sentenced as above.

The judge explained why he passed the death penalty –

‘These are times when gruesome crimes against women have become rampant and courts cannot turn a blind eye to the need to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes. The increasing trend of crimes against women can be arrested only once the society realises that there will be no tolerance.’

There has been much political support for the verdict and sentence, including some suggestion of political influence. The Indian Home Minister is reported to have said that the death sentence was ‘assured.’

So what, if any, should be a Christian response to all of this?

I think it is helpful to step back for a moment from the sentence and think about what this case tells us about the shocking treatment of women. This is highlighted by a brilliant article from Sociology Professor Sanjay Srivistava writing in DNAIndia –

‘..women suffer the greatest amount of sexual violence within the family and yet such violence is also far less reported than its incidence. Why? Because the Station House Officer (SHO) at your local police station is at one with the ‘family elders’ that to register a FIR in the name of an offending uncle or grandparent would bring shame to the family. And, so the victim’s individual pain is sacrificed in the name of collective honour.’

He goes on to say –

‘Rape is committed by men who are brought up to believe that if they do carry out the crime, it is the female victim who will suffer a loss of dignity and hence will be convinced by her kin to keep quiet about it.


There can be no other response than to be offended by attitudes which cheapen the victims, especially women. Jesus Christ revolutionised the status of women. Just read John Ch4 which is the longest recorded one to one conversation where he discusses deep theology and personal issues with a Samaritan women, much to the ‘astonishment’ of his friends. It is fair to say the church has not covered itself in glory in relation to the status of women, but that is a discussion for another day. But there can be no doubt that we should be tireless in supporting calls for social change which will value women, and all other oppressed groups for that matter.

There is a danger here of ‘interfering’ in the culture of another nation. That is a genuine concern. But it is clear from Professor Srivistava’s article that the call for change is coming from within. We need to come alongside them and do all we can to support these calls and encourage our own leaders to do the same.

But what about the death penalty? Is this the appropriate sentence? It has certainly been welcomed by much of the media, both in India and elsewhere. I have been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty but have to confess that my initial reaction was supportive. How many of us thought – 'they deserve all they get'. 

This was one of the worst crimes imaginable; surely we can set aside our opinions just this once.

But on reflection we cannot allow our emotions to influence justice. We might feel a bit better, knowing that they will now face the same feelings of fear and helplessness as their victim. But does that make it right?

It is really a case of official revenge. Jesus' life and message was all about forgiveness and non-violence. He was the one who told us the turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to love our enemies. When he himself was the subject of an official ‘murder’ his response was forgiveness not revenge. That attitude has to underpin our own thinking and we cannot make exceptions for particularly nasty defendants.

The other concern is that it won’t actually change anything. Will the killing of these four men make the problem go away? The real risk is that they will hang, and the world will see that as line drawn under these terrible events. In the meantime women will continue to be treated as second class citizens who can be abused at will.

Finally, there is no such thing as a perfect system of justice. We get things wrong. If we still hanged those convicted of murder, the unfortunate boyfriend of Rachel manning would never had had the chance to clear his name and the real culprit might still be walking free –



Our main concern should not be to enjoy the satisfaction of revenge but to do all that we can to encourage change.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Christians in the UK do not suffer persecution




Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey caused a bit of a stir over the weekend with his attack on the Prime Minister over his ‘aggressive secularisation’ of the UK.  In a Daily Mail article he criticised David Cameron’s support for gay marriage and because of the government’s position on Christian workers sacked for wearing a cross.

The former Archbishop suggested that this undermined Cameron’s commitment to the right of Christians to exercise their faith. He went on to suggest that a significant majority of Christians felt like a ‘persecuted minority.’ Although he acknowledges that ‘few in theUK’ are actually persecuted he clearly suggests that some are and that there is a real danger of this happening.


Now I would normally be the last person to defend Mr Cameron whose political policies are so damaging to the poor. But this is a disturbing article in so many ways. 

Firstly, he seems to show no real grasp of what persecution actually is. Early Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed because of what they believed. Paul writes to theThessalonians – ‘In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.’ He tells the Corinthians – ‘Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones.’ That is persecution.

Romanian Pastor, Richard Wurmbrandt was imprisoned for 8 ½ years for standing up for what he believed in. He was then sentenced to a further 25 years for continuing to preach following his release. He was subjected to physical and psychological torture. That is persecution.

Revd Martin Luther King fought for equality in a racially divided America in the 1960s. All of his work was motivated by his faith. He was arrested, beaten and had many death threats. On 3rd April 1968 he said 

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!’

 

Next day he was shot dead in a Memphis hotel. That is persecution.


Lord Carey redefines persecution, or at least attacks on the right to exercise faith. For him it includes losing the power to tell gay people whether they can or cannot get married. Why is the removal of discrimination a barrier to me exercising my faith?


But that exercise of power was never part of Jesus’ good news. In fact he disappointed many because he refused to take that form of power. The early church knew nothing of that. From the time that the Roman Empire appropriated Christianity the church became a huge source of power. How many millions have been persecuted by the church over its history?

 

It may be that the church is losing that power. As a Christian I would certainly not see that as a bad thing. I have never seen anything in the teaching of Jesus to support an argument that people should be coerced into any particular lifestyle.


But whatever views we may have, the very fact that we can discuss it openly is telling us something. It is not persecution.




Monday, 25 February 2013

Calling Mr Meek


Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth – Matthew 5 v 5

We talked last time about the need to be aware of the subversive, revolutionary impact of the Beatitudes. According to NT Wright the victory goes not to the wise or the strong but to those who are ‘small’ before God.

But what is Jesus actually saying here? He is clearly not observing things as they are. The meek do not have the earth. It is those who are strong and powerful who are at the top. You would not expect a humble or gentle person to be the Head of the Bank of England, President of the USA or manager of Man Utd! There are not many self help books on how to be meek. Just try searching on Amazon. One title caught my eye – ‘Secret habits of successful bastards – the self help people for people who are too nice.’ Says it all really.

Neither is this a fluffy statement about how things will be when we are all plucking our harps in the celestial clouds. Jesus deliberately use the phrase – ‘inherit the earth.’

It is really part of this statement about how things can be in the revolutionary new kingdom that he came to reveal. It is not a vague comfort for natural born Frank Spencers. It is meant for those who choose gentleness and humility because that it the best way to be. Christ himself was the prime example. Paul tells the Philippians that he did not consider equality with God something to be held onto but gave it all away in order to humble himself. That is what he is talking about here. 

It is the exercise of power v the gentleness of love. 

Martin Luther King once said – ‘Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

We will never achieve change by coercion. Many religious people have tried to make their world a better place – as they see it – by the exerting of power. To force people into their way of seeing things. They do not see that in doing this they are coming into conflict with Jesus’ message of non violence. We cannot coerce, we can only love. I have heard the American writer and speaker Tony Campolo speak on this topic twice in the last 20 odd years and his message is the same – To love, you have to give up power. In an exploitive relationship the one with power will control the one who loves. Love and power are mutually exclusive.

Blessed are the meek? Why? Because they are the ones who have learned how to love without conditions, without expectations and without imposing their will. So we move from  ‘how can I do what is best for me?’ to ‘how can I best serve others?'. From ‘how can I get rich’ to ‘how can I enrich others?’ From being driven by a need to control to a looking for ways to make others feel valued and significant.

It is as we do this that we begin to identify with the poor, the lonely and the sick. Religious people often have a problem with being vulnerable. There is a need to be right, to be strong, to have no doubts. It is not easy to accept that they are not Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way.

So in our relationships our aim is not to get our way but simply to be there for each other –

‘Piglet sidled up to Pooh
‘Pooh?’
‘Yes’, said Pooh?’
‘Nothing’ said Piglet,  ‘I just wanted to be sure of you

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Food banks - a dilemma!


There has never been a time when there have been so many food banks starting across the UK. My own church at St. Luke’s in Liverpool is shortly to launch its own project in conjunction with Trussell Trust .

According to the trust, 13m people live below the poverty line in the UK. They expect to provide food for almost 1/4m people over the next year. This creates a dilemma. At one level it should not be for churches and other voluntary groups to be feeding the hungry in this country. When we hear of £40m wasted on trying to find a new provider for a perfectly well run rail service and £300m for state of the art court building to accommodate commercial disputes, we rightly question the priorities of our politicians. Surely it is the role of the state to ensure that its citizens do not go hungry.

So isn't the church just making matters worse by setting up these banks? Won’t the government see what is being done and say ‘there you go; we don’t need to look after the poor because the churches are doing it’? I would have no hesitation standing up to make that case. But I am also fully behind the St. Luke’s initiative.

That may seem to be a contradiction but ultimately we have to look at the bottom line. That has to be hunger. For Christians this is a mandate which outweighs almost everything. In Psalm 146 a faithful person is one who is –‘executing justice for the oppressed and giving food to the hungry.’ Jesus himself identified himself with those in need and described his true followers by saying – ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ And so we could go on.

So when it comes to this bottom line we have to place the provision of food ahead of everything, even our own political convictions, however reasonable they might be! So to support those most in need Christians will do what they have to do.

But alongside that the arguments should continue. The UK remains one of the wealthiest nations on earth – don’t let the loss of AAA status deceive you! It is not acceptable that anybody should need a food hand out. That has to change. The fact that churches are doing the right thing does not lessen the responsibility of government to write budgets that place the poor and hungry at the top of the agenda.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Looking for Mr. Blessed - 1


Matthew 5 v 3

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’

This post is based on one of a few talks I have done at St. Luke’s on the beatitudes; those very familiar statements from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Those statements that we love to quote but, often, have no idea what they mean!

Before we get going on this one we need to explore what the beatitudes actually are. They are clearly promises of happiness or blessing in response to certain values. But who is he talking about and when will all this happen?

One view is that they are simply promises of what life will one day be like when we are playing our celestial harps in heaven. So if you are ‘poor in spirit’ – whatever that means – don’t worry because one day you will leave this place for paradise. Now there may be some truth there but it mainly misses the point. Jesus made it clear that he had come to change things ‘now’. In the following chapter he tells us to pray – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth’. From the moment he began to teach he was beginning a process of transformation. In his first public statement he said –

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he finished by saying - “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4 NIV).

So we are not talking about a vague future. These promises are in fact part of a manifesto about how we should live now. Note how subversive these statements are. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek… That is not our experience. We are more familiar with – blessed are those whose numbers come up, who get to win X Factor, who are the front cover of Hello! These statements suggest something new and revolutionary – ‘Life Jim but not as we know it.’

Our normal worldview is inverted. These are not comforting words about heaven will be like. We need to read them as if we are revolutionary conspirators working to change the world.

So starting here; who are the poor in spirit? Is it those who are materially poor? It certainly includes them but suggests something wider. One great translation is ‘those who are bent down’. Those who have little or nothing on which to be self reliant. Those who are therefore free from our familiar weight of expectation. We all know this.

The ones who have the looks, the wealth, the fame, the material success have a far harder time learning to trust God and others. It is that trust which can lead to real peace. Jesus himself reminds us that nature does not worry about anything! So we are talking about a stripping down of the baggage to allow the essential ‘me’ simply to be and to trust.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks of a liminal space. Liminal means threshold, a place of emptying enabling us to move forwards into a new place.

‘Many spiritual giants have tried to live their lives in permanent liminality. They try to live on the margins and on the periphery of the system so they will not get sucked into its illusions and pay offs. They deliberately live off balance from what most of us take for normal or common sense. Think of the radical poverty of St. Francis, the inner city hospitality of Dorothy Day, the lives of almost all missionaries. They know that some kind of displacement from business as usual is the only way to ensure deeper wisdom and broader compassion.’

We need to remove our layers of security like the dragon scales that Aslan tears from Eustace in CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We are of course afraid of doing that in case we find scary monsters! In fact we find our true self, a beloved and highly valued child of God. And it is that child who learns to trust and not to live in a state of stress. And then we begin to see why that is a blessing!

But we cannot forget that a kingdom is also a community. As we learn to find our true inner self and the dignity that goes with it, so we begin to share that with others. As we free ourselves from the expectations that we lay on each ourselves, so we must lay aside the expectations we have of each other. By what standards to we value others – are they of our group, our faith, or political persuasion, our age group? That will ultimately lead to a very narrow group who deserving of our time and effort. But what if we stripped all of that away and considered everyone that we meet as being a very important person – not because of what they do but because of who they are?

Then we might begin to understand why it is good news to be ‘poor in spirit.’

Full talk and others available here -