Have we “got Brexit done”?

December 31st, 2020
by Chris

When what seemed the last possible deadline for agreement of a new trading relationship with the EU had expired, I wrote a somewhat despairing post. Hindsight now reveals that, as I indicated to start that, I might be writing too soon. There is a deal (agreed on Christmas Eve and voted on by the House of Commons yesterday), and it has avoided some of the more awful consequences of “no deal”. Lord Adonis calls it the “Trade Reduction Deal”, and that seems fair to me.

Has it “got Brexit done”, as Boris Johnson pledged to do (and by doing so got himself an unassailable majority in parliament for the next four years)? Not by a huge margin. As Chris Grey comments in his excellent review of the current situation, this is not the end of negotiations – he calls it “never-ending Brexit”, and not for the reasons I gave in a 2019 post “This will never end”. Those reasons still, I think, hold good, but we need to add to them the fact that this is only a partial agreement – most significantly it doesn’t include services, and services constitute an unreasonable amount of our foreign earnings (and the only area in which we run a balance of trade surplus). In particular, it is a temporary deal – it is scheduled for complete review in 5 years, which among other things means that Keir Starmer may say that Brexit will not be an issue in the next Labour Party manifesto, but it has to be, because the agreement will essentially run out shortly after the next election. There is no chance that Labour will issue a manifesto which ignores such a major issue. Granted, he may think that he can forget the “Brexit” label and just have a policy on trade relations with Europe, but I fancy that the label will still haunt him…

Add to that the fact that it’s a partial deal – it doesn’t cover quite a lot of things, of which services is only the most prominent, and it anticipates other agreements and modifications on a continuing basis throughout that five years. We don’t even have (say) four years during which we can stop thinking about it – it will be prominent on the political scene within months, if not weeks, and we can never forget that it contains provisions which could scrap some or all of it if either side is radically unhappy about the way it’s progressing (as Ian Dunt expands on) . Dunt, to be fair, sees this as an opportunity to move closer together in small increments – and that really should be the case.

But it won’t be. There are just too many MPs at the moment who will rebel at any move towards a “softer” Brexit. The only thing I can see which would not attract such opposition would be “passporting” UK financial services into Europe, which I earnestly hope will be on the agenda immediately – not only does it constitute a large segment of our overseas earnings, but it also provides a significant slice of our tax base. While I agree with Chris Grey that we could do to rebalance our economy away from services (I said as much in the first post I link to above), doing it abruptly will be a “double whammy” and put us in a bigger trade deficit and a hole in our tax revenue at the same time.

And the only thing I can see coming from that from our current government is a new period of “austerity”, in other words removing by stages all the good things government provides, at the expense of those in our society least able to bear that.

I am only slightly less despairing, therefore.

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The shock of incarnation

December 26th, 2020
by Chris

On Christmas Eve, I listened to a fair proportion of “Carols from Kings” (a rather Spartan version compared with the norm). Somehow, it isn’t really Christmas without this precursor, usually listened to while finishing off various cooking tasks in the kitchen, but this year without anything major left to do. It seems that Nel and myself make a very efficient team in the kitchen, swapping chef and sous-chef roles smoothly – and it wasn’t that we were cooking far less food, as our Christmas lunch had all the usual elements.

That gave me the opportunity to really listen to some of the words. Kings always starts with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, but somewhere in there will be at least one new piece, and some different arrangements. By the time we got to the Herald Angels, I was wondering how it was that I didn’t usually take full notice of what the carols were actually saying – most of the content is so familiar that it sort of slides over the rational faculties and engages the emotional resonance direct, at least when there’s something else to do.

And my mind went to the notorious artwork “Piss Christ”.

In 1987, Andres Serrano made this photograph, of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a countainer of urine. This caused absolute outrage in many conservative Christian circles, combining as it does a venerated religious image with a particularly “unclean” medium. Richard Beck makes much of this image in his splendid book “Unclean”, which explores ideas of the sacred and of the taboo.

Why this?

The carol writers rather generally try to expose the disconnect between (taking “Hark the Herald Angels” as a template) the “triumph of the skies”, a particularly imperial concept of Jesus, with “offspring of a virgin’s womb”, the paradox of “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity”. But it’s all too familiar. The messy business of birth, with various bodily fluids and secretions and, for the mother, a total collapse of any sense of dignity, is lost. “Piss Christ” brings back that idea forcibly. I have no difficulty with the image at all – I’m a panentheist, if called on to give an ontological account of the relationship of God and man (even though I think that is beyond my or anyone’s capacities to define), and God, for me, is radically present in all things. And that, of course, includes the piss as well as the Christ. I regard Christmas as the feast of radical immanence – “God with us”, but also in us, around us, under us, over us, before us, behind us… It isn’t remotely a stretch for me to think of a mewling infant, which in the world of 1st century Judaea was someone who might, possibly, become human in 14 years or so if very lucky, as God, the highest being (or hyper-being, or something beyond that) imaginable.* So high and mighty, indeed, that Judaism prohibited any attempt at representing him (or her). That, in it’s time, was a shocking, an inconceivable idea – but the shock value has vanished for us.

But, as I contemplated this, I recalled the start of the carols. “Love and watch the lowly maiden” from “Once in Royal David’s City”, and I thought “‘lowly maiden’? – this is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), the Queen of Heaven, according to Orthodox and Catholic theology”.#

“There is is”, I thought, “There’s the paradox, the inconsistency, the contradiction, the rupture, the cognitive dissonance which I was missing”.

It’ll do for this year. For next year, I may need someone to write a carol involving piss, blood and amniotic fluid… and get it performed by Kings.

* Or beyond our ability to imagine, and only guessable at by extension…

# I’ve been spending some time reading a group including a lot of conservative Catholic and Orthodox people, on the basis that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a like-minded bubble. They would not like “Piss Christ”…

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Hope deferred indefinitely.

December 13th, 2020
by Chris

I may be writing this slightly too soon*, but it appears we have reached the final deadline to agree a trade deal with the EU, and failed. Failed despite the fact that the EU has, throughout the negotiations, been offering us really very good deals. Failed, perhaps, primarily because Boris Johnson used the opportunity of a face to face meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to slag off other European countries and bluster, instead of doing what the country desperately needs and giving up the sticking points – fish, for goodness sake, which represent 0.1% of GDP, and some half-baked notion of sovereignty which thinks you can get all the benefits of a market without committing to obey it’s rules.

We are, it seems, going to crash out of the Single Market on January 1st without any trade deal at all with our most important and nearest trading partners, the remaining 27 EU countries. And, of course, without any trade deal with most of the rest of the world, because our trade with them was under EU agreements, which will also end.

And there’s a little bit of me which is happy, despite the probability that we will be facing shortages of food and medicines (among a vast number of other things – the shortage of medicines means that a few of my friends will quite likely die as a result of this – and I might as well) and a blow to our economy which will permanently set us back as a trading nation. I calculate that, instead of being 5th in the G7, recently slipped from 4th as a result of the pending Brexit, we’ll be hard pressed to stay a member at all… and I might worry about staying in the G20. OK, I know Rees-Mogg thinks that in 50 years we’ll see a benefit from it (and that that will be worth it!) but we will have wrecked large sections of industry and, perhaps most importantly, the City of London, which loses its access to Europe. That, in turn, means that government revenues will nose-dive (less economic activity, less tax revenue) and I confidently expect that the “austerity” of 2005 onwards will look like a slight inconvenience in comparison with what is to come.

So how can I possibly be happy?

Well, to start with, any deal which might remotely have emerged other than the fantasy I’ve occasionally had that the government would turn round and say “OK, we can’t do a bare bones deal which is any good, let’s do a ‘Norway’ deal” (which would have had most of the advantages of EU membership without any say in what the rules were), such a deal would have been only slightly less awful than the “no deal Brexit” which is going to happen. Granted, that “slightly less” would have possibly halved the negative effects on the economy. However, no deal means that opposition parties will not be put in the position of being called out for voting against a deal (and so voting for no deal) if they don’t support whatever was negotiated. Johnson and the Conservatives will be unequivocally responsible for the disaster, and it will be far easier to “make them own it” and set up the opposition to try to do something positive in the years to come.

Secondly, the period of ups and downs, with a deal being slightly more likely one day then not likely the next is over. A bare bones deal might have been absolute garbage compared with what we used to have as a full EU member, but it was something, and produced a level of hope beyond its real value. Raising and dashing hope time after time is soul-destroying; “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”, and eventually one can prefer not to have the hope rather than have it demolished for the 100th time.

But there are other reasons to think there might just be some good come out of this.

Firstly, although I very much fear the results of removing a large amount of our tax base with the demise of the City, what the City actually does is to a great extent not productive – it’s gambling on movements in shares and commodity prices and on whether risks will materialise – and this does not translate into real things. If we are, as I suspect, heading for a collapse of the whole world system of financialised free market capitalism, to cure ourselves of dependence on this earlier rather than later could, just possibly, be worthwhile, even if it is extremely painful. It would probably be more painful later…

Secondly, with ecological crisis looming, I question whether trade over long distances is something we can actually afford. Transport contributes very large amounts of CO2 to global totals, and while we seem on the verge of ditching petrol-driven cars here in favour of electric, I see no corresponding moves to make goods vehicles more carbon-friendly, far less ships or aircraft. Again, the correction would be painful – but it may be one we are going to have to make anyhow. We could be forced to make and grow the stuff we want to use and eat, instead of importing it – assuming, that is, that anyone still has the money to start enterprises of that kind.

Lastly, although I absolutely don’t want this to happen, things might get so bad that the government is removed by force, by some form of popular uprising – and that would remove the awful prospect of four more years of Tory rule, and the threat of various measures which are calculated to destroy our democracy; removing the power of parliament to bring the government to account, for instance (which they have already voted away in respect of trade deals); removing the power of the courts to ensure that the government abides by the constitution (yes, there is one, even if it’s unwritten, largely conventional and can always be overruled by parliament) as was seen when Boris sought to stop parliament sitting; removing human rights; ending devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… the list could go on. It might even give us things like a more sensible voting system and an upper chamber which had actual power to hamper a runaway government like this one, rather than just slowing it down slightly.

[“Taking back control”, it seems, is something this government is doing – from parliament, from the devolved governments, from the courts and from the people, not from the EU, where if anything we have let go of some control.]

Actually, in the case of major civil unrest, I would expect that the Conservatives would ditch Johnson and his ERG cronies and try very hard to get a sensible trade deal (much more than the minimal one we’re currently not getting), as well as doing a U-turn on things like reducing the power of parliament and the courts. It would, of course, not be a “Brexit deal” any more, just a trade deal with our nearest neighbours. I think that in order to get there, Johnson and pretty much all of his current cabinet would have to go (and I would shed no tears if any or all of them never held office again), because they are poison from the point of view of the rest of the EU.

Though, were I the EU, I might insist that we first established ourselves a written constitution which parliament and government couldn’t ignore, and a PR system of voting. They do, after all, have “stable government” as one of their criteria for membership – maybe also for a comprehensive free trade agreement and customs union? Personally, I’d like to rejoin outright, but that might be a bridge too far for the electorate at the moment; even if something like two thirds think leaving the EU was a mistake, the figure would be significantly lower for a move to rejoin.

  • It turns out I was, as we have yet another extension of talks. I am not allowing myself hope…

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This way lies madness…

November 19th, 2020
by Chris

I’ve just watched a commentator who has pulled together some of the more bizarre reactions of American evangelicalism regarding the recent election. I’ve seen most of them previously, but never had them presented side by side before.

Needless to say, were I American, I wouldn’t have given any of them creedence, in part because I both reject the concept that God is all-controlling and consider that the examples of Cyrus (given in the video) and David are horribly misleading when applied to Trump. But that isn’t remotely the only reason.

Now, I may be extremely liberal in my theology, but I don’t rule out the possibility of prophecy, nor even prophecy which predicts near-future events. On balance, I think that some people on some occasions have been able to predict the future in a prophetic way, though I remark that in the Bible prophecy is virtually always against the ruling classes, against the powerful, against the status quo – and I note that in all the clips in the video, the prediction is in favour of the status quo. I also don’t rule out the possibility, even likelihood, that a truly prophetic word will sound deranged to many listeners (as they will tend to think there is no alternative to the status quo) – or even that the words of people who are genuinely mentally ill may have prophetic content. There is, after all, Biblical evidence that a number of the Prophets displayed behaviour which we would now consider evidence of mental illness, and Ezekiel is perhaps the primary example.

However, I would also not give these evangelists creedence because what they are saying is clearly hysterical; they are obviously in an overwrought state, and even if they were saying things which would be music to my ears (such as that the world would shortly experience a collective metanoia, turn to ecological sanity and end the threat of climate change) I would, if faced with them in real life, retreat to a safe distance and well out of earshot of them and their followers. Why? After all, they are clearly making fools of themselves (as one of them has the good grace to admit).

The answer is, because their delivery is clearly not just hysterical, it’s hysteria-inducing. And the last place I want to be is in a crowd subject to mass hysteria.

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On a personal note…

October 28th, 2020
by Chris

I need to apologise to those who have subsribed to the blog. There hasn’t been much material of late, and I’m not all that confident that I can promise to do a lot better in future.

Partly, that’s due to the fact that I keep writing a few lines and then realising that it’s a topic I’ve already written about on the blog. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m just finding life (and particularly thinking) difficult in the face of various things over which I have no control. Yes, I try to use the Serenity Prayer (“God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) as much as possible, but most days see me shedding a tear or two in the face of that inability, and finding the weight of these things making everything harder.

Covid is not the most prominent one of those, but it does present an underlying dis-ease, particularly in the face of a government which doesn’t seem to me to be dealing with the pandemic particularly competently. OK, I have well in mind that government has been presented with an extremely difficult set of problems; as I’ve written before, Covid presents something close to the most difficult set of parameters for a pandemic which I could have contemplated inflicting on my emergency planning colleagues back when I was active as a civil defence scientific advisor. The lag of three weeks or more before an infection results in a reliable indicator (i.e. death), the fact that many people are asymptomatic, the difficulty of testing reliably for something which is genetically a cousin of the common cold, the lack of a complete picture of the means of transmission (albeit, the last two are becoming clearer with time), all of those make the life of emergency planners more difficult. As if it wasn’t difficult enough balancing the preservation of life (and, increasingly it seems, long term health) against severe economic disruption…

No, the things which are really weighing on me remind me of my daughter’s favorite white-knuckle ride at Alton Towers back when she was small, and demanding that daddy take her (my wife and son get vertigo stepping off the kerb, so weren’t candidates!). It’s very simple – you get strapped into a carriage, several people abreast, in two rows (raked so you have a good view forward) and are steadily winched up to the top of a tower, at which point the carriage tilts forward so you have a really good view down quite a long way to a hole in the ground (where the message “don’t look down” is prominently painted) and pause – for a random number of seconds. Then they drop you. Of course, once through the hole in the ground, the carriage is guided by rails back to the horizontal fairly quickly, and the whole thing is actually very safe indeed.

Brexit strikes me in that way. We’ve been effectively stuck in the carriage looking down on the drop for four years now, since the referendum result in 2016. Up to the 2019 election, there was actually some slim hope that we could winch the carriage back down the way we’d come to at least some extent, but that hope was extinguished with an 80 seat majority out of a 1% increase in the Conservative vote (as the Brexit Party withdrew from all the seats winnable by the Conservatives and their vote collapsed) and Boris Johnson proceeded to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement to remove the possibility of a customs union – and refused to ask for any extension of the transition period. Short of a revolution, there is now no serious hope of anything much better than throwing away every trade agreement we have (a “no deal”); anything which remains possible will be minimal, and certainly not include a customs union. (To clarify, the lack of a customs union means that a massive volume of our imports and exports, which is to and from the EU, will be subject to customs; the backlog of lorries at both sides of the English Channel is estimated to be something around 100 miles worth, and the delays in excess of two days. This will make fresh food imports very difficult, at the least, and will no doubt deter many suppliers from trying to negotiate the barrier, even if duties on the goods and the paperwork to go with that didn’t do that.)

So, the country will drop from the metaphorical tower on 1st January 2021. The difference is, we don’t have any guide rails or tunnel, and it may effectively just be like a 100 metre drop onto solid concrete. The anticipation of this has already reduced the UK from #4 in global exports to #11 (behind Mexico). We will have food shortages. We already have medicine shortages (in anticipation, again) and that could well kill at least three friends.

We may even have a revolution, and I’m averse to revolutions, as they tend to kill a lot of people and rarely produce the result the instigators wanted. But as I sit here, I’m not sure that isn’t actually warranted by the severity of the shock the country faces.

And, if that wasn’t sufficient, there’s climate change. I will probably not live long enough to see the bottom of the drop from the tower on that one, as it will probably take 20-30 years, and I doubt I’ll live that long, given my underlying health conditions, even if Covid doesn’t do the job earlier. But, constructive noises in the UN notwithstanding, I just don’t see the international will to take the kind of steps necessary to avoid a catastrophic rise in temperature, sea level rises, widespread crop failures and, of course, the collapse of the world’s economic systems.

The international will is not there despite the fact that Covid has shown us that we actually can reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophe – but at the cost of really major economic effects. Chiefly, it seems to me, it’s not there because the most prominent emitter of carbon in the world, the USA, is collectively a climate-change denier. Will that change in the event of a Biden victory? I don’t know. I don’t have much confidence in India or Brazil either. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had much confidence in China either, given that they were massively expanding coal-fired power production, but there have been some signs that they may be at least somewhat onside, and they do have the advantage of a totalitarian government which can act, and act fairly quickly.

But as things stand, I think my children are likely to be living in a “Mad Max” style post-apocalyptic landscape, assuming that they survive the transition, and that much of the major achievements of Western civilisation will have gone the way of Atlantis. And that would represent the failure of everything I’ve ever hoped for from civilisation and technology.

Up to 2013, I lived 17 years with major depressive illness (before some factor, whether it was different antidepressants, the confidence that my doctors were actually listening, working a 12 step programme or constant prayer, brought me out of that). In the latter years, the only emotion I could muster was “it’s all wrong” as anhedonia set in (OK, with occasional bursts of anger). Rationally, I see much the same picture now – what, I ask myself, is the point of anything?

Emotionally, however, I don’t seem to be quite in the same position, deo gratias. So there are some blog posts. But please excuse me, as producing anything is a mountain to climb…

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Divine self-investment

September 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Tripp Fuller, best known for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, has written his first academic book in “Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology”, which as a long time supporter of the podcast I just had to read.

Bob Cornwall and Jay McDaniel have already written excellent reviews of the book from their particular academic positions, so I see no need to repeat their thoughts, beyond agreeing that this is a book displaying deep scholarship. Tripp masterfully explores pairs of similar but subtly contrasting Christologies in successive chapters, weaving his way through the subtleties and coming up with an approach to a harmonisation in each case, with a final overall construction.

I wish I’d had it on my editing pile, as repeatedly Tripp comes up with some facet of Christology which I’d have liked to engage with in more depth, but he sensibly went with a publisher more known for academic titles than I work with. That’s where I’d like to direct my main response, though; I generally find myself editing books which are more in the “popular theology” bracket, similar to Tripp’s earlier book on Jesus in the “Homebrewed Guide” series (and I recommend that unhesitatingly as well). As Jay McDaniel remarks, this is not a “popular theology” book, it’s an academic one. Viewed from the point of view of an editor who is always looking to make books accessible to the maximum audience, this is not, to my mind, wholly beyond the lay reader; Tripp has, even when doing serious academic work, an engaging and easy style.

Admittedly, had I been editing it, I might have argued for maybe a dozen additional footnotes as concepts arose which I felt the reader in the pews might have some difficulty with (or difficulty in appreciating the subtlety of), but that is relatively few in a book of this depth. With that very slight warning, I can unhesitatingly recommend reading it if you have any interest in developing a robust open and relational Christology.

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My dad’s little victory

August 15th, 2020
by Chris

My father, Donald Eyre, would have turned 100 last week. Sadly, he missed out on that by a little under 19 years. He has, however, been very much in my thoughts as the VJ commemorations have taken place this week, because the East was where he spent most of his wartime service.

He joined the RAF while at Oxford University, and found himself in the control tower at Scampton airfield for a while; his eyesight precluded flying duties. As he put it to me, he then made the cardinal error when in the services, and volunteered without knowing exactly what he was volunteering for, and found himself packed off to the Oriental School in London to be taught Japanese. We were very short of Japanese speakers.

The course was intensive and, to my mind, brutal. List of 50 words; learn those and we’ll test you on them tomorrow. Next day, a list of another 50 words; learn them and we’ll test you on both lists tomorrow. That continued for some weeks, by the end of which the list of words had reached 10,000, at which point the students were told that that was greater than the vocabulary of most tabloid newspapers, and they were therefore qualified as interpreters. At that point, he was packed off to India, where the 14th Army was fighting to prevent the Japanese getting into India.

He then had a rather idyllic year, socialising with friends, making new friends (including a very close relationship with a young Indian girl who sadly died very young – and had she not done so, might have been my mother), hiking in the foothills near Simla and generally having a rather “cushy” billet – the reason was that at that point, almost no Japanese had been captured, so there was no call for interrogators or interpreters. He did, however, improve his time by learning Japanese characters to go with the spoken language, so got a small amount of work reading Japanese scripts.

Things warmed up for him in 1944 and definitely into 1945. He started to get a lot of work interrogating. While I failed miserably to get from him much of the content of those interrogations, one story he had struck me forcibly; he was tasked with interrogating a fairly high ranking officer, of samurai background – and the officer didn’t understand him. This puzzled him, as lower ranks had had no problem undertanding him. Then a ploy came to him, and he selected a lowest ranking private to come into the interrogation with him; he then asked the private to repeat to the officer what he was saying (which, of course, was in Japanese). The officer’s response was amazement, and he asked the private how it was that he was able to understand English.

The reason was that, from the officer’s point of view, it was inconceivable that an Englishman could speak Japanese, and so he was not going to understand (and he never actually did). The private, who didn’t have the intellect to think up something like that, just responded to someone speaking words he understood. Later on, dad would take the opportunity to say a few words to Japanese tourists when we came across them, often when on holiday ourselves, and I could see the moment of incomprehension on them as this obvious Englishman addessed them in their native language, but in every case they realised that yes, they did understand him – and frequently the famously impassive Japanese face became all smiles. By then, of course, there had been an allied occupation force in Japan for some years, and plenty of English and American people who had learned Japanese.

The one incident which he did tell me of which impressed me most was towards the end of the war. By that time, the 14th Army (which my dad had huge admiration for, in particular Orde’s Chindits) had made great progress through south east Asia, and my father was regularly being flown in to captured airfields to interrogate the senior officers. On one such occasion, the plane landed and dropped him off, and then took off again for another location – and, standing on the tarmac, he realised that there were no non-Japanese faces among the people who came to meet him. As it turned out, the ground forces hadn’t quite got that far, and the airfield was still uncaptured.

However, it also proved that the Japanese were so disspirited by then that the commandant surrendered the airfield to my dad. A few hours later, some ground troops turned up, and were ribbed unmercifully about how a single Flight Lieutenant had captured an entire airfield and didn’t really need a couple of platoons of infantry. Though he was extremely glad to see them!

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“You’re a brick, Peter”

August 9th, 2020
by Chris

I keep seeing debates about Matthew 16:18-19 in various locations, always on the basis that someone who is Catholic is trying to say that these verses prove beyond doubt the primacy of the Catholic Church. To remind you, those verses say “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Many years ago, I found to my delight that Jesus was making a pun when he said this. I got there via the French “Tu es Pierre, et sur ce pierre je batirai mon eglise”, and wondered about the original. In the Greek original, the words of verse 18 are “kago de soi lego hoiti sy ei petros kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian”. Note “petros” and “petra” – these are both forms of the same word, and the different endings are purely because they are used as different parts of speech in Greek, whereas French and English don’t have case endings. I was more delighted to find that in Aramaic, which is no doubt the language Jesus was speaking in, both words are “cephas”, which was definitely a name by which Peter was known, so it was definitely a pun whether he was speaking Greek or Aramaic – or even Latin, because the pun works in Latin as well. I liked Jesus even more, knowing he was at least on one occasion a punster.

The thing is, Peter always seemed to me a most unlikely person to be given authority over all the other disciples (and that isn’t what the passage says in any event). He is portrayed in the gospels as being – well, slow on the uptake would be a polite way to put it. Granted, Paul describes him as one of the pillars of the early church, the others being James and John (and I note not only that there’s no indication that Peter was at the time even “primus inter pares”, but also that he was still being slow on the uptake with respect to food…

Casting around for some way of translating into English such that the pun was still there, however, I encountered something interesting. I considered “Rocky” initially. Jesus talks elsewhere of building a house on rock, a solid foundation, and that would be a natural link. However, he also talks of spreading seed on rocky ground, where it doesn’t germinate well – and that, to me, encapsulates much of the character of Peter as presented in the gospels. He’s very solid, but telling him things doesn’t always bear fruit. “You’re a rock” isn’t a commendation of your intellectual acuity, let’s face it.

I also considered a more common building material where I live, brick. Again, you can say that someone “is a brick” indicating that they’re solid and dependable – but you can also say that they’re “thick as a brick”, and that meaning might just creep into the first for those with keen ears.

I don’t know whether the same kind of dual meaning attached to such words in the koine Greek or Aramaic of the first century (and we have no native speakers to ask these days), but, to me, the passage says rather forcibly that Jesus is underlining that the dunce among his disciples is also foundational for them.

But what of verse 19? Catholics want to say that only Peter (and his successors) have the keys to the kingdom and the ability to bind or loose. But that’s not what the passage says; the fact that Peter has that power is by no means exclusive of the other disciples also having that power. One can, indeed, look back at Jesus’ words to his disciples earlier in his ministry and deduce that they all had that power and maybe had “had ears to hear” already, and it may be that Jesus was underlining the fact that yes, the most dense among them (rocky, brick-like) also had power.

Yes, even Peter. And even the Catholic Church. Not, however, to the exclusion of anyone else – after all, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the disciples in Acts 2.

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How to stop being human

July 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Toby Buckle has done an episode on dehumanisation on his Political Philosophy podcast which I strongly recommend. OK, it’s rather over an hour, but I think well worth a listen. It takes him some time to get there, but in the last third of the podcast he raises an issue which has been troubling me a lot.

An absolutely standard response from people with significantly more conservative political view than mine to the multiple examples which have come up of mainly black people being shockingly treated by police, mostly in the US but also in my own country, has been that “they’re a criminal”. Not that they have at some point in their lives done something which is against the law, but they ARE a criminal. Somehow, this seems to excuse treating them as not entirely human, not entitled to the same respect for life and limb as the rest of us – and I note that in both our countries, the principle of “innocent until found guilty” applies, and similarly previous conduct is not generally considered a sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been committed on this occasion (in the UK, it is something which is not allowed to be raised by the prosecution before a verdict except in special circumstances).

This even extends to suggesting that people are already excluded from being treated as citizens with all the normal rights of a citizen because they have “failed to comply with an order” of a law officer (which has sometimes included arguing that the order is not lawful), because they have crossed the street at the wrong point, because they have a defective tail light on their vehicle… Or, of course, because they are black, and therefore conform to a description in which the only salient point of similarity is “black man”, or on the somewhat spurious basis that they are more likely to have committed a crime because they are black (or, in this country, sometimes west asian) – which is, I suppose, statistically correct, but neglects the fact that they are still, at worst, only around 5% likely to have committed some provable crime. Indeed, sometimes, just standing in the street (or on their own property) or walking along the wrong street at the wrong time, or having no home seems sufficient. There is a clip from “Not the Nine O’Clock News” from 1979 which is satire – but these days, it has come to look so much like actuality as to be painful to watch.

Our theory, in both countries, is that if someone does commit a crime, the court sentences them to some punishment and when that is expired then “their debt to society is paid”. But neither country actually practises this; ex-offenders find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get a job, for instance, (unless they lie on job applications and so commit an offence of fraud) which propels them straight back into crime. In the UK, despite the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is designed to underline this principle by making it legal for people not to mention a conviction after some years have passed (varying depending on the offence and sentence), insurers can ignore this (which means ex-offenders can’t get insurance – and sometimes not having insurance is an offence), employers sometimes find devious ways round the provision, and any position involving a position of care for others (particularly children) also circumvents the Act. In the USA, not infrequently, ex-offenders are denied the vote as well (it is notable that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that voting is a human right which should as a general rule be retained even by prisoners serving a sentence, something which the UK signally fails to implement). This is, of course, not to mention the forced labour in the US prison system, which is effectively a modern slavery.

So, it appears that in both countries, although far more so in the US than the UK, we are creating individuals with only partial human rights, only partial citizenship – and, if you are effectively allowed to shoot someone without being prosecuted and jailed merely because they are “a criminal”, that is effectively a form of outlawry, stripping away the most fundamental human right of all.

It’s worse than that, however, if you’re a Christian (and even these days, a majority of people in the UK self-describe that way, and a massive proportion in the US). I could rehearse the list of instances from the gospels where Jesus made it clear that no-one was outside the circle of humanity, the circle of his followers, and indeed “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Women, children, the disabled, members of foreign occupying forces, collaborators with the invaders, heretics, foreigners, even members of a hereditary enemy country were all to be included. However here, I want to concentrate on one instance, the thief on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise” is fairly unambiguous – the man was a condemned criminal and hadn’t even clearly repented his crime, but he was still included. It is not open to us as Christians to treat “criminals” as less than fully human, fully Children of God.

Just to underline this, St. Paul had some words to say in Romans 3:10-12 (inter alia) on the subject of criminality, borrowed from either Psalm 14 or Psalm 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” If there is any temptation in our minds to say “Ah well, I am not a criminal”, we should read that – and ask ourselves whether we have ever contravened a traffic regulation, fudged our taxes a little or employed someone for cash (conspiracy to commit tax fraud), overstated an insurance claim, puffed up our resume to get a job or overstated our achievements in order to get social approval, or, perhaps even been standing on or walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – and that’s only considering laws which we actually know about, given that almost no-one knows all the law – ignorance of which is no excuse (“ignorantia juris haud excusat”).

OK, I’ve always thought that Paul was overstating with the entirely laudable aim of stopping people being complacent and lacking in self-awareness and self-criticism. I’ve met a very few people who I suspect have never, at least in adult life, broken any law. Not many, to the extent that I think they constitute maybe 0.01% of the population. I am definitely not one of them, and I deeply suspect anyone who claims they are (those in that category are not likely to boast of it, I’ve found). Thus I cannot subscribe to the Calvinists’ “total depravity” – but would argue that, when it comes to the law, the overwhelming likelihood is that each of us is guilty of some “criminal” act – and there need be no intention. George Floyd tried to pay with a forged note which he almost certainly didn’t know was forged, something which I once did (but obviously without the dire results he suffered). In the eyes of the “but he was a criminal” brigade (who I suspect of being closet Calvinists) that made me a criminal too.

And, apparently, being a criminal means that you don’t have the rights of citizens (in the US, definitely including life). You don’t have the rights of humans (under the European Convention on Human Rights definitely including life). You don’t have the right to be treated as a child of God. as all of humanity is. Or as Christ – missing from the categories in Matthew 25:31-46 is “When did we treat you as less than human?” and “When did we shoot you because you were a ‘criminal’?”, but they should possibly be there in a 21st century version.

Of course, eventually they crucified Christ because he was “a criminal”. Perhaps it’s time to stop crucifying Christ?

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Privilege, white and other

July 9th, 2020
by Chris

Let me be honest, I find “white privilege” somewhat difficult to accept for myself. I’m very happy to admit my privilege from being male and from being able to fit stereotypical roles of gender and sexuality. I’m extremely conscious of my privilege from having been born in the Britain of the immediate post-war period (my children, sadly, lack some of the privilege associated with being born in that time slot, though they share the privilege of being British and, until very recently, European). Likewise the privilege of being born to middle class parents who encouraged education and supported me through quite a lot of it.

But whiteness? That one is difficult, and I suspect it’s difficult to a significant extent because of where I live. I noticed a facebook post from a friend recently which asked “when did you have your first black teacher?” and, for me, the answer was “never”. I never had a black classmate either. One rather salient reason for this was that there were no black people living in my town in my youth. There are, I think, three living in town now, which makes them approximately 0.01% of the population. Equally, there are no black people in either of the churches I go to regularly, and it isn’t the result of any lack of welcome from the church, it’s just that the only person in town who is black and a Christian goes to a gospel church 30 miles away. I know this, because she used to be a client of mine before I retired.

I found it particularly interesting to go through the questions in this facebook post regarding “white fragility”. I had to answer “yes” to several of them – and, indeed, this whole post may just be a display of “white fragility”. Maybe – but I don’t know. Part of my unease about being called “white” is that it isn’t a label I would normally attach to myself (nor is “black” a label I would use as a generality; there is a huge difference between people who have a skin tone which would commonly be described as “black” and even that isn’t remotely conclusive, as very many people who are genetically at least somewhat “black” and thus lumped into that category are lighter-skinned than, say, the average southern European).

So I definitely fall into the category of using “not all white people”, and of feeling defensive when it’s raised as a category, and (unfortunately) rather sensitive to a range of things which are these days being labelled as “racist” which I don’t think are. I feel similarly defensive when, as is happening quite a lot in some circles, people talk disparagingly about “boomers” (and yes, I am, by birth date, a “boomer”, which is similarly a generic term which I have never associated with myself and which I don’t find useful as a categorisation). I suspect, however, that my feelings are amply reciprocated by a lot of people who are labelled “black” but who would just prefer to be identified as, for instance, “English” or “British” or “European”. Though any of those categories has its own downside when you think of historical treatment of non-English/British/European people; those I am, I think, rightly sensitive to being problematic (and “English” is more problematic than the others, given that English mistreatment of others began with the Welsh and the Scots, and then moved on to the Irish – and that last one is arguably not yet a purely historical issue…). But then, I’m sensitive to the fact that having the label “Christian” lands me with a share of collective guilt for past treatment of Jews, Cathars, other Christians, Muslims and – well, anyone not of the flavour of Christianity which someone adheres to as well.

In relation to the whiteness of my hometown, our first non-white family (Chinese) arrived in town when I was about 11, and opened a Chinese restaurant and then a takeaway. Half of that family became clients of mine, and the matriarch of the family was a neighbour until recently. Another family moved in rather later, and also became clients. We then got a crop of Indian restaurants and take-outs, but by and large they commuted from a couple of nearby cities which have a large Indian and Pakistani origin community. Nonetheless, I did some work for a couple of them.

So I should have known if there was any police or other official maltreatment of them, and barring the fact that I thought some planning problems I resolved for one of the Pakistani origin takeout owners were the result of prejudice (which was a card I had in mind but didn’t need to play), I don’t think there was much. There may well have been some subtle discrimination at play which they didn’t think to mention to me, though. Indeed, given the propensity of humans to make derogatory references to any perceived physical peculiarity, I’m sure there was.

There was definitely considerable police maltreatment of homosexuals and later of the trangender people in town, which I tend to think go together with racism, and I did act for several of them in resolving complaints. I saw that reduce massively during the thirty years I was in practice here. Thus, I don’t think our police force were particularly paragons of virtue, but I am confident that they’ve got better than they once were. I’ve just no particular reason to think that they were systematically racist in the way that the Metropolitan Police were found to be in 1999, or the way I was instrumental in proving Cleveland Police were between 1997 and 2007 (yes, it took that long to bring home a result which convicted one policeman, had two disciplined internally, including an Assistant Chief Constable, and caused the resignations of two others); in that case they were racist against one of their own, manufacturing a criminal case against a Pakistani origin officer who complained of racially motivated harrassment, and even getting him convicted; it took 10 years before not only was he reinstated and the conviction overturned but he was also compensated. OK, I didn’t actually manage a finding of “institutional racism”, but I’m confident I proved it.

In areas where there is a significant black population (notably London – see the finding against the Met), I’m confident there is still a problem, as Akala says in this clip. I like the fact that he centers his argument on the existence of a caste system rather than purely on racism, though, as while I don’t see all that much overt racism locally (probably because there aren’t sufficient people of colour for it to be significant – as I remarked in a previous blog post, one primary problem I see fuelling racism is that people are scared, and it’s difficult to be scared of a very small minority). There is most definitely discrimination based on caste (or class) here; as I mentioned, I’m privileged to have been brought up in a middle class family compared with people from lower class families (and I have in mind a cutting video featuring some of the best comedians of recent years here), but I’m very conscious of the even greater privilege enjoyed by people who are upper class – and I really dislike the entitled, Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge educated rich people, who are considerably over-represented in our current government. Akala also refers to the “chavs” who used to occupy the slot now peopled by black people; that slot, where I live, is still almost exclusively occupied by white people. A significant number of them come from the last major wave of immigrants to settle locally before the middle of the 20th century; they have Irish surnames and tend to be Catholic… and, growing up, there was among my parents’ generation a low-level racism against the Irish which was compounded in the 60s when the “Troubles” started and Irish people were not infrequently blowing up English pubs…

It’s tempting to think that I may be privileged in that I live in an area where there aren’t significant communities of other races, and thus there isn’t the same opportunity for people generally and the police in particular to express racism. I’m not so sure about that – my general feeling is that I rather envy those who live in more racially and culturally diverse areas. I like cultural diversity, it’s stimulating and interesting.

That brings me back to never having had a black classmate (or, indeed, a classmate of any very different cast of countenance). At school, people were picked on for having much more subtle differences – and the one which springs immediately to mind was a couple of friends I had who had red hair. Not only the children but also the teachers seemed to have a conviction (totally unfounded) that red hair indicated a tendency to violence and an ungovernable temper, and both of them suffered as a result. Of course, neither of them was particularly violent, nor did they intrinsically have bad tempers, but they were still the first to be blamed for any fight they were close to, and I felt a keen sense of injustice on their behalf. I suppose I was enjoying “brown haired privilege”, though it’s just as difficult for me to think in that way as it is (based on my environment) as about having “white privilege”.

Me, I was picked on for having spectacles and for being rubbish at anything requiring running or connecting with a moving object, notably all ball sports, and also for being “a swot”. OK, I was pretty good at every academic subject and I read a lot; those were courtesy of my upbringing (see above) and of having a fairly keen intelligence and, in those days, a very good memory, near-eidetic (it isn’t nearly as good these days!) but the term “swot” indicated someone who worked unduly hard at academic stuff, and, in truth, I didn’t – I just found it easy (I didn’t start finding things academic difficult until my second year of university, at which point it would have been a good thing if I had developed “swot” tendencies…)

It came to seem to me that people will discriminate on the basis of physical (and other) differences irrespective of whether they are connected with “race”, and that that is a bad thing even if it isn’t “racist”. You might say that the bulk of people are racist even when there’s no-one to be racist towards. For myself, while I might notice someone’s hair colour in passing, I’m not going to regard them as “a red headed man or woman”; to me it’s an incidental. Likewise for someone’s skin colour – and in both cases, that’s unless someone appears to be regarding them unfavourably on the basis of their appearance. And, for my anti-racist friends, I’m afraid that I am at least somewhat colour-blind. I may not notice someone’s red hair, and equally I possibly won’t notice someone’s darker-than-the-average skin tone – indeed, I not infrequently haven’t noticed (for instance, in “City Homicide” it was a surprise to me to find after several episodes that the character Duncan Freeman played by Aaron Pedersen was “indigenous” and was called “black”, and in an episode of NCIS I remember noticing that an actor in an early scene was a marine, from his haircut and general bearing, but I hadn’t noticed that he was black until it became a part of the plot – though, in my defence, he was fairly light skinned). OK, Nyakim Gatwech’s skin colour I would notice… it’s an absolutely gorgeous shade (and she’s an absolutely gorgeous woman).

Nyakim Gatwech- the queen of darkness : pics

Apparently, though, it is now not permissable to not notice someone’s skin colour, to be “colour-blind” in this way. My own feeling is, frankly, that unless it’s obviously an issue in a particular situation, it’s more correct to be colour-blind than hugely colour-sensitive – after all, I don’t want people labelling me “white”, and I tend to assume that others probably don’t want people labelling them “black”. But there are, clearly, many circumstances still where colour IS an issue, and there I’ll pay at least some attention to it – particularly if the issue is that someone is discriminating on that basis, stereotyping or making derogatory remarks.

I suppose, at the end of the day, I find it difficult to use the word “privilege” when, to me, that word indicates that I benefit from some characteristic of upbringing or genetics which are not shared by the general population. There are plenty of those I’ve benefited from (as I’ve indicated above), but not being picked on because I’m from a minority which is considered different in some way is not, to me, a privilege – it’s an issue of rights which are being denied to others, but which I enjoy. To steal wording from the US Declaration of Independence, everyone should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and unless you agree with an old friend of mine who claims there is only one fundamental human right, the right to be given privileges, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aren’t privileges, they’re rights. In the case of black people – and those of a variety of other skin colours and other markers of difference – those rights are being denied. Life in the case of George Floyd and many others, liberty in the disproportionate number of black people jailed in both the US and the UK and the pursuit of happiness in the significantly reduced chances of personal fulfilment and the incessant belittling – well, everywhere where there are minorities.

That is clearly wrong. It is also clear to me that Jesus particularly singled out all of those whom society did not treat equally as being “the first”, those to be preferred, so it is my Christian duty to try as best I can to ensure that their right to life, liberty and happiness are at least as well-protected as my own. But when someone says “white people should renounce their privilege”, I read that as saying that white people should not have the right to life, liberty and happiness either. That would also be wrong.

Now, a tailpiece.

The current level of interest in this subject stems from the murder of George Floyd (and I have no hesitation in calling it murder – in the very thin possibility that it wasn’t murder, I think the onus is on the defence to prove that, given that the action of the police was clearly calculated to cause harm).

In 2019, police in the United States killed 1004 people. In the same year, police in England and Wales killed 3 people, police in Japan killed 2 people, and police in Denmark killed none. Much of the blame can, I think, be laid squarely at the feet of the level of gun ownership in the States, but not all. I am substantially convinced that, in the Floyd case, racism was a major player in the treatment he received. In the UK, it equally seems the case that, if you are arrested by the police, you are significantly more likely to be physically mistreated than if you are white (just as you are ten times more likely to be subject to a “stop and search” without there being any actual suspicion). I am not, therefore, convinced that our police are significantly less racist than the US police seem to be; it’s just that our mistreatment doesn’t tend to end up with deaths.

As I outlined in my previous post linked above, one factor seems to be that the US police are frequently terrified – of people in general, it seems, but of black people in particular. It seems that they are frequently trained that way. US police dramas don’t seem to me to paint a very different picture – the urge to present the most dramatic events, there, seems to involve gun battles in a very large proportion of instances (something which many UK crime dramas manage to avoid completely). I am appalled by this; my observation has always been that scared people make bad decisions – and I am extremely conscious of the fact that there’s a huge asymmetry between US police who are excused shooting on the basis, effectively, that they are scared and US citizens, particularly black citizens, who are expected to be particularly compliant in the face of gun-waving officers and not, under any circumstances, display any behaviour which might possibly make an officer more nervous.

I suffer from a General Anxiety Disorder, and the likelihood that I would panic in the face of armed policemen shouting at me is fairly high (in other words, I fall within another group of people, those with mental health conditions, who fare particularly badly at the hands of police, both in the USA and in the UK), but I would anticipate that even without a GAD, the likelihood of panic when faced with that kind of stress is significant. I have largely trained myself not to go down either of the “fight” or “flight” routes in stressful circumstances, but to adopt the “freeze” reaction, but even that would, it seems, not be safe in the US, as I might not be “complying with police orders”. It seems obvious that in the US, both “fight” and “flight” options would be much worse than “freeze”, but “freeze” is still not safe.

The thing is, you can be trained to operate rationally in very stressful circumstances (at least, most of us, absent a GAD or any of a number of other mental health conditions), and it seems that US police in particular are not being trained that way and/or not being selected on the basis of successful learning from such training (in the UK, those officers who are permitted to use firearms are specifically trained that way, and fail the course if they don’t show sufficient stability under stress, though officers more generally are not trained and selected that way, which has led to some horrible miscalculations with people in custody).

And, it seems to me, you can particularly be trained to reject any use of deadly force where there is no proximate threat of harm to anyone. Such as when someone “fails to comply with a legitimate order” or is running away.

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