One world, one tribe, one church?

February 20th, 2017
by Chris

There is a strong Biblical theme involving the eventual vanishing of boundaries between tribes and nations, as this meditation on Joel indicates. It is one aspect of the current of seeking justice which pervades the scriptures, particularly the prophets; the foreigner is one category of the oppressed who are singled out for particular care and protection.

In the New Testament, Jesus then takes steps to invalidate tensions due to people’s occupations, consorting with tax collectors and a repentant courtesan, due to their nationality in the tale of the Syrophonecian woman and even if a member of an occupying enemy nation, in healing the servant of the Centurion, and finally due to their religion in the parable of the Good Samaritan (and in that case it is important to note that the Samaritans were completely beyond the pale, as they practiced what Jews regarded as a perversion of Judaism in an immediately neighbouring area with a long history of violence between the two communities). Paul just sets another seal on it in Gal. 3:28 by denying not only differences between Jew and Gentile, but between slave and free and even man and woman.

Indeed, Alain Badiou (who is at least nominally atheist) wrote a book called “St. Paul; the Foundation of Universalism” in which he explores universalism as an “event”, something which breaks apart the existing structures and leads to new possibilities. New possibilities like seeing every other human being as your neighbour, or your brother or sister. Although Christianity has not generally been very good as regarding all of humanity in this way, the long ascendance of Christianity in Europe eventually gave way to a secular liberalism, and frankly I don’t see that any committed Christian should object to the end result of that, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That isn’t an ostensibly Christian document, but it does, I think, encapsulate a large amount of how, as Christians, we should treat others.

Now, I can occasionally dream that in the future, following Jesus might become something truly universal, and that this might at least to some extent solve our problems of tribalism and the attendant violence and prejudice. Christianity is not, however, the only universal religion – all the Abrahamic faiths are at least potentially universal (though Judaism makes it rather more difficult than others to become part of their conception of the “people of God”), as are Buddhism, Taoism and the more philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta (and multiple others).

There are problems, however. The other major world religions have their own very faithful adherents, for a start, and a sizeable proportion of Christians have (as I mentioned in a previous post in this series) fixed on one of them, Islam, as “the enemy”. Yes, I know that most of us are careful to say that the enemy is radical Islam, and particularly radical Islam of the Salafist variety, but the way we actually act indicates that we regard every Muslim as a potential terrorist – witness all the restrictions on refugees from Muslim countries, who have a massive claim on our compassion even without considering that our Western governments have contibuted in greast measure to the fact that they cannot feel safe at home.

It may come as a shock to some, but I would actually have no major problem in saying the Shahada, just as I have no major problem saying “Jesus is Lord”. Some American Christians have, indeed, recently been suggesting that they could do likewise in a show of solidarity with Muslims terrified by President Trump’s noises about Muslims and the upswelling in persecution which goes along with it. I have read the Quran (OK, in translation), and while I could nitpick about some of the passages in there, there is nothing worse than, for instance, the Biblical attitude to Amalekites, and the general tenor of it is far more universalist than the general tenor of the Bible if you include the Hebrew Scriptures. Islam is capable of expressions which I consider more Christian than most of what I hear from Christians these days, as witness this address on the Quebec Mosque killings (which reminds me of, for instance, the Amish reaction to their own massacre some years ago). I rather treasure the comment of one Muslim in a thread some years ago, after I expounded a thoroughly Christian concept of submission to the will of God, that I was a “good Muslim”. How could I do otherwise, given the eleventh step “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out”? To call me a “Good Muslim”, however, requires a broadness of definition very few Muslims would agree with, but “al-Islam” is “the way of submission”…

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am not actually likely to jump ships in that direction, for two reasons – firstly, Islam takes a very dim view of what it considers “apostates”, and I tend to manage to be heretical in any system I participate in, and secondly, bacon…).

Is there any possibility of true universalism without the supremacy of one of the universalist religions (all of which are a part of one or more tribal identities)? My rationalist friends would say that any such endeavour should not. However, they would replace religion with another philosophy (as far as I can see, humanity cannot form a viable tribe without some unifying philosophy), and pretty much any such philosophy is likely to be anathema to some people subscribing to any religion. I would also problematise such an endeavour on the basis that it would give no place to the spiritual side of human nature, and it is (to my thinking) exactly that spiritual side which is likely to bring people to consider themselves part of a greater whole, namely humanity, or that it would try to elevate the philosophy in question to a level which it is unable to bear (such as the way Communism used to be viewed by many in the last century).

I have a lot of sympathy with Karen Armstrong, who has described herself as a “freelance monotheist”, having started out Catholic, gone through a period of atheism and then studied Judaism, Islam and Buddhism in depth. I am, however, very sceptical that her path is one which could be followed widely, let alone universally. Granted, I know people who regard themselves as Christians and Buddhists, Christians and followers of Vedanta and am even aware of one or two who claim both Christianity and Islam; this is not to dwell on “Messianic Judaism” which strives to combine Christianity with Judaism, but without any significant Jewish membership – it is unfortunately little more than a covert Christian evangelism project, and I am very much not in favour of trying to convert anyone who already has a well-functioning faith (or philosophy). They, however, are probably all going to remain outliers, and all of them would be rejected by significant proportions of their chosen faith traditions, even those who claim “Buddhism plus” or “Vedanta plus”, neither of which is religiously exclusive, at least in theory.

There is perhaps more traction to be gained from finding a non-religion-specific philosophy which, however, doesn’t tread too heavily on any religious toes, and leaving the various faiths to accept minority status in the wider community. That is, let’s face it, what the American experiment attempted to do in the First Amendment to the Constitution. OK, I will grant that I don’t actually think the Founding Fathers intended anything more than preventing the various sects of Christianity which were dominant in one or more of the signatory staates from becoming the religion of the whole country (as most of them had at that point a lamentable record of oppressing people from other denominations, which is probably what the Pilgrim Fathers were hoping to create), aside perhaps two or three who had a more wide-ranging objective. (Incidentally, any of my more conservative readers who are happy with my strict construction here should note that I do consider the constitution needed to develop to meet changing circumstances, and the procedure for amendments is inadequate for that because too difficult, so while I wince slightly at the way legal decisions have gone, I think it was necessary; they should also note that using the same principles I would interpret the second amendment as allowing the restriction of any ownership of firearms to members of the armed forces, police or National Guard – and I might argue about the inclusion of the police!)

I do not here mean to suggest that the rest of the Constitution is a viable model for the world in general, perhaps with the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence,by the way. There are good features and bad ones about it, and current events strongly indicate to me that it’s system of governing is broken. I would suggest that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rather closer to the ethos I would like to see as universal.

That would, of course, mean that all the religious tribes would have to accept being minorities, at least unless and until one of them managed to secure a worldwide majority. Looking back at history, Judaism has managed to do this for a very long time; Christianity had its greatest expansion as a persecuted minority and Buddhism has done very well as a minority religion too. I can’t see this status as being bad for them – and, indeed, the keenness of the Pilgrim Fathers for setting up their own theocracy and persecuting others does make one wonder whether it is in any event very good for anyone else (more recently, Burma/Myanmar is an unpleasant reminder of how even the very peaceful Buddhism can be unpleasant when in effective control of a state).

But I still dream of the day when we can add to Paul’s words in Galatians:-

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, nor is there Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh, Taoist, Animist or Confucian, Wiccan or Pagan, Discordian, Agnostic or Atheist, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Italics my addition).

It would be nice if we could start with having that viewpoint throughout the many Christian denominations… there are huge numbers of Christian tribes, many of which consider other Christian tribes as the great enemy (rather like Jews and Samaritans). Can we start there?

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Politics and faith

February 14th, 2017
by Chris

Daniel Kirk has posted an excellent piece about the intersection of Christian faith and politics. In it, he asks four questions:-

  • What sort of rubric do you use for engaging politics as a person of faith?
  • Is there really any point in participating in the system we’ve been given?
  • Are you more actively engaging now than you did a year ago, if so what’s new?
  • What are the points at which Christians should be changing the conversation rather than simply taking up the flag for one side or the other in the political maelstrom?

I think my first answer has to be to the second question. There really is no alternative to participating in the system we’ve been given; the only alternative would be to seek to tear down that system and institute a different one, and I don’t think we’re called on as Christians to be wreckers (aside, perhaps, from a need to overturn the tables of the moneylenders regularly); we are supposed to build community, not to destabilise it. Granted, building a Jesus-driven community IS a destabilising action so far as the prevailing order is concerned.

Yes, the system we have is corrupt; I’m with Walter Wink in characterising it as one of the “powers and principalities” against which we should struggle, but also with him in recognising that our current system is, like us, fallen and capable of redemption. Our task should be to strive to redeem it. Granted, we may also hope that God will move mightily and change things, but our experience should indicate that where we have the power to do something, we should not expect God to do it for us – and, in a democracy, we have the power to do something.

That power is the power to vote, first and foremost, but also the power to agitate to sway representatives, to work to have representatives who share our vision elected and, in the final analysis, to stand for election ourselves if we find we are the only person willing to. This was a situation in which I found myself around 40 years ago, when I complained to a former Jesuit friend that I had no-one to vote for, and after establishing that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either of the main parties and there was no presence of our rather marginal third party, he suggested that I stand for them – which entailed creating a party group on the ground locally. After a couple of trial runs, I then proceeded to get elected to local councils seven times…

I think his advice was sound – and he himself was a member and a representative for one of the main parties, not the one I stood for! (Incidentally, I’ve paid that one forward in giving other people advice which got them elected, and two of them stood for his party). There really is no alternative but to participate, given that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

That, I think, also gives my answer to the last question. If you don’t like either side in an apparently two party system, join or start another which you like better. Who knows, you may win…

My basic objective was always to promote social gospel issues, to ensure the good of the greatest number possible as a communitarian enterprise while avoiding major disadvantage to minorities. In the process it was necessary firstly never to lie, and secondly never to make a promise which I wasn’t confident I could deliver on. I grant you, these are not normally regarded as things politicians do, but I’m proof that, at least at a local level, it’s possible. If standing in a more serious capacity, I would probably want to add “don’t take any campaign contributions from people who expect you to do anything which conflicts with your basic objectives”.

I am, however, retired from practical politics, so no, I am not really more actively engaging – my health is, frankly, no longer up to the challenges of either pavement-pounding or vigorous public engagement. Though I do find I’m thinking and writing more about political subjects than I used to, and don’t rule out the possibility of doing more, albeit almost certainly not in standing for office again. Over 20 years worth of being an elected representative is entirely sufficient for anyone, in my view!

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Pick up the cross?

February 13th, 2017
by Chris

I’ve just read an article by Rachel Held Evans with which I resonate. OK, I only agree with four of the points which she says make her uncomfortable in a mainstream, “liberal” church – and partly with a fifth, but I’m completely with her on the points which separate her from the more conservative church (and most of what is labelled “evangelical” falls squarely into this category).

Added to her points of difficulty with the conservatives, I can add that I’m very much “pro choice” as it tends to be put these days. This isn’t nearly so much of a demarcation line here in the UK as it is in the States, but it is a difficulty. I haven’t written at length on this topic, but I know I have some “pro-life” readers, and if there’s push-back on this point, I’ll write about it.

Where I part company with mainstream churches is primarily on the issue of actually getting out there and doing things in the community. I’m happy if there’s evangelical outreach as well, but very unhappy if that is linked to serving the poor and marginalised – under no circumstances do I want to exact payment from them in the form of listening to attempts to “convert” them which they don’t want to hear. Second on my list is Bible study – I want a church I attend to have active small groups which I can be part of – the church which basically presents a spectacle for an audience and stops there is not for me.

Like Rachel, I also want to take the Bible seriously (but, to the disappointment of my more conservative friends, not literally much of the time). I want to do that with ALL of the Bible, and not (as I find perhaps the majority of people in Bible studies do) ignore the difficult bits of either testament – but mostly those in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, I also don’t want to do what some conservatives do, and decide that Islam is the new Amalek and we should therefore exterminate Muslims (yes, I do know some people who actually think this should be the case). I am very much with Alfred North Whitehead’s suggestion (passed via John Cobb and Tripp Fuller) that God has to be at least as nice as Jesus – and the Jesus I think God has to be as nice as is definitively the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels excluding the apocalyptic passages, and not the “DJesus unchained” of Revelation.

To be completely honest, though, neither tendency of church, at least not those near to me, is nearly as radical as I want. As I’ve commented before, the more I read the synoptic gospels (and, to be fair to him some of Paul) the more politically radical my views become. Christianity, it seems to me, was as a whole doing a much better job of following Jesus in the first couple of centuries following his death than at any time after the Constantinian adoption of Christianity as the Roman State Religion. OK, there are some denominations which gave a good account of themselves in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, combatting the slave trade, obtaining rights for workers and children and instituting the co-operative movement, but by and large Christianity has been imperialistic since certainly about 300 CE.

And during the period when it was doing the best job of following Jesus, it was being persecuted; it was rightly seen as being subversive of the imperial power of the day.

So, in conscience, what I want to see from my church is a group which gets up the nose of the powers that be to such an extent that they risk persecution – and that I see from neither mainstream nor evangelical churches at the moment (although I do notice a lot of American evangelicals seem to think they’re persecuted – but then, American evangelicals seem to have lost connection with both reality and the gospel recently).

I notice with interest that during that period when they were much closer to following Jesus than the churches in general now are, and were being persecuted, Christianity grew faster than at any other time in its history. Time, I think, to pick up our crosses and follow our leader…

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Save the Cheerleader?

February 9th, 2017
by Chris

I have been wondering about going offline and avoiding all news, such is my current feeling that the world is “going to hell in a handcart” as my grandmother would have put it. Brexit here and Trump in the States makes me feel that everything is falling apart – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” as Eliot put it. In truth, though, I merely feel it’s doing that a lot faster than was previously the case; regular readers will know that I see neoliberal financialised capitalism as pervasive, becoming stronger (at least until it crashes on all of us) and as being “the System of Satan”. At least one facebook friend welcomes Brexit and Trump, possibly out of a Dada-esque liking of absurdity, possibly out of a feeling that only in the flames of the old can anything new be born. And I find it difficult to see anything I could do about it…

I think a significant factor in both the Brexit vote and the Trump win has been a large pool of people who have similarly been feeling that things have either been getting steadily worse or at least not getting better for them over the last decade or so. I can understand people thinking that Obama talked a good line, but that the average person didn’t see much (if any) improvement during his presidency, and similarly here a lot of people thought that Blair talked a good line, but things didn’t improve much for them (and the coalition and then the Conservative win just put the icing on that cake for them). With a young friend of mine, they then voted Brexit because “I want to see the world burn” – and I think the same may be true for a significant number of Trump voters. Enough desperation, and you’re ready to unleash destruction without having a clear plan to replace anything; to clutch at straws, or vote for men of straw.

I am frankly afraid of “tear it down, something will come up and it’s got to be better” attitudes – those have fuelled a lot of revolutions, and whether the end result has been positive or negative on balance, the common factor tends to be a lot of suffering. What to do in the meantime, though? How can I, not in a position of great power of influence and without the funds to buy even a very low ranking politican, have influence in a positive way?

For those with health, energy and youth on their side, I strongly suggest involvement in the political process – if you don’t like what politics is producing, do something to change that. It’s by no means too early to start campaigning for 2020; building up a strong organisation and widespread support can easily take three or four years.

In any event, though, I suggest doing the small right things. Richard Beck wrote about the “little way” a while ago, while I’ve meditated on the last few verses of Matthew 25 (you help the disadvantaged or marginalised, you help Jesus…). What springs to mind today, however, is that we people feel powerless to save the world, and it looks as if it might need saving. I remembered the repeated message in the first series of “Heroes”, which was “Save the cheerleader, save the world”.

Now, OK, in that case, saving the cheerleader did save the world, as the cheerleader saved the world. But there’s another very similar line in the Jewish Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”. (Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9). This exemplifies a principle in Judaism which is more strongly expressed there than any other tradition, namely that any general thing has to have particular expression – a generalised compassion, for instance, is considered worthless unless you are compassionate in a practical way to a particular person. Perhaps this echoes the particularity of Judaism itself; Israel is God’s chosen people, which prompted William Norman Ewer to write “How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews”, exciting people to claim this was antisemitic and write rejoinders such as Ogden Nash’s “But not so odd / as those who choose / a Jewish God / but spurn the Jews”.

Actually, though, I think it was probably meant in a kindly spirit. Many Rabbis have, in the past, expressed some surprise that Israel was chosen, and some have just rested on that rather than tried to find hidden reasons. There had to be a particular expression in order for the general compassion and care of God to be demonstrated (just as I would say there had to be a particular incarnation of God in Jesus in order for the original incarnation in existence as a whole to be demonstrated, though that may go too far for the non-panentheist).

When the opportunity arises, save someone. If enough of us do that, the world will get saved.

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Beyond tribalism?

February 5th, 2017
by Chris

In writing about nations (or ethnicities, tribes, cultures or, if pushed, races) one needs to consider how these might be organised (and I have in mind that they may organise themselves). I recently found an interesting article regarding the conflict between democracy and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.

Let’s face it, we are going to have ethnicities for a very long time, if indeed there is any chance they will eventually vanish as a feature of human organisation. One of the more stupid suggestions I’ve seen mooted recently was the idea that we should solve all the problems of the Middle East by eliminating tribalism. Granted, if there was no tribalism (ethnicism), there would probably be far, far fewer tensions in the area, but really? You might as well say we could solve all the same problems by eliminating violence. It is not remotely a practical suggestion.

Humanity is, I think, irredeemably given to creating identity groups. Where there aren’t enough nice clear identities for young people in urban sprawls in the West to adopt, they will create gangs, with their own visual and behavioural distinctives. Before you dismiss this as a feature of youth culture, or counterculture, consider the average parochial church council of body of elders – if there are more than four or five people, there will be factions, and sometimes the level of animus there is equal to that between rival gangs, although, thank the Lord, usually not expressed with guns or edged weapons…

There are a number of factors which contribute towards the identity of an ethnic group or tribe. Large among those is language; if you have a language “the others” don’t understand, this helps you preserve the identity. Dialects and heavy accents will do almost as well, and if you haven’t one already, don’t worry, your group will soon invent its own set of “in group” words. Similarity of appearance is a big one – if your group happens all to have the same skin colour or other clear features such as an epicanthic fold, that’s a good start, but you can get a long way by dress codes, body art and even just general demeanour.

Beliefs are also a very strong identity factor. If they can attain the status of a religion, all the better, but I look at some sports supporters and find it difficult to distinguish their Kierkegaardian “ultimate concern” with their chosen team from the basic substance of a religion, and I am wholly convinced that the neoliberal consensus in economics is religious in nature (and worse than many religions in that its basic tenets such as the infallibility of the market and “trickle down” economics have been shown time and again to be both false and damaging).

Most of all, though, the thing which cements any group together is having an enemy. “Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”  – James Alison. The great enemy du jour in the West (“Western” may not be a tribe, but that holds for many of the individual tribes which constitute “the West” or “the First World”) is nominally Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but the terrorists’ narrative is that this conceals the fact that Islam as a religion, as an ethnicity, as an identity is the enemy, and despite the best endeavours of spokesmen in most of the West (I except the new US administration, who seem incapable of being even slightly subtle) that is very much how things are playing out. While we may say that we are merely combatting terrorism, our actions frequently prejudice Muslims generally, and I can well understand my Muslim friends who no longer feel comfortably “at home” in my country, despite in many cases having been born and brought up here. Yesterday’s great enemy was communism, of course, but that is now almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy (wrongly, in my eyes, as what actually failed was command economies). Indeed, the unifying force of a great enemy seems to be the most significant factor in political divides.

We have to deal with the fact that if you put enough people together, they will form tribes; any attempt to create a larger body with a common identity is likely to founder on petty divisions. I have in mind that even in the early days of Christianity, Paul was complaining of this. It would be nice to think that we can get beyond the great unifying force of a common enemy in order to do this, but at the moment I cannot see a way to do this, apart from stressing at every possible opportunity that we are all human beings; we are children of God irrespective of our other differences.

My next post will talk a little more of the Biblical witness to this idea.

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Thanks for the trust…

January 18th, 2017
by Chris

I’ve just listened to an interview with Walter Brueggemann on the topic of money, and as a result have his book on the subject on my wish list. I wrote a fair amount about property a little while ago (this is a link to the earlier post in that series), and it is very good to hear Brueggemann endorsing my view that possessions and money are not to be regarded, if you wish to follow the Biblical witness, as being “yours”; I like the concept of “holding on trust” which he talks of.

Of course, I anticipate the argument that we can’t actually run a society based on these Biblical principles. G.K. Chesterton wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried”, and I am very tempted to agree. As I’ve written before, there seems evidence in Acts 2-5 that the very early church was trying to take a view of economics which was essentially communitarian (particularly Acts 4:32), but the experiment does not seem to have persisted all that long, and the injunction in Leviticus to hold a regular “year of Jubilee” when all debts were cancelled and all land returned to its original owners does not seem to have been followed for very long, if at all – certainly there is no trace of it in the historical record; I ask myself whether the Pauline efforts to support the Jerusalem Church were in fact famine relief, or whether trying to follow Jesus’ and the Hebrew Scriptures’ injunctions regarding property might have had significant negative effect, in which case there would be some justification in saying that Chesterton was wrong in saying the ideal had not been tried.

But I really like the concept of “held in trust”. That would mean that I don’t necessarily have to pauperise myself, but can hold assets and money as long as I acknowledge that the primary purpose of this is to benefit people in general, rather than just myself and my immediate family; I hold them subject to an obligation.

OK, there is a general principle of trust law that trustees should not benefit from the trust, but a well drawn trust deed will include provisions for the trustee to be reasonably remunerated for the work they do – and besides, I am one of the class of beneficiaries of this particular trust anyhow, as are my family!

I think I can extend the principle, as well. I have (whether by nature or nurture, but in any event largely not by my own doing) a reasonable intellect and a good memory, and regard those too as something I hold in trust for the benefit of people generally.

And, of course, to regard my money, possessions and abilities as a gift is in and of itself something which can contribute to my own happiness, given the finding that people tend rather strongly to be happy in proportion to the extent that they feel grateful!

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What tribe are you from?

January 18th, 2017
by Chris

It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.

I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.

I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.

But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.

Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.

But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.

My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.

The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.

Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.

I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client  mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.

In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.

And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.

Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.

What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…

 

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Working for the joy of it?

January 10th, 2017
by Chris

A few weeks ago I wrote a post which touched on working, and my need for it to be useful in some sense (while in general complaining about the general assumption that the value of everything is measured in money). Today, I find an article on Intrinsic Motivation, which I strongly recommend.

It certainly reinforces my general thesis; there is a disconnect between what makes us want to do things and the money we may gain as a result. I’m actually in the relatively happy position, being retired from my original main occupation, of being able to do pretty much what I want to; I don’t have to get income from what I do. However, as the earlier post says, I do need to feel that it’s useful, and to some extent that ends up having to be measured in money. In effect, it puts me in the position of someone who receives what I would dearly like to see instituted in my society, an universal basic income.

Some years ago I analysed how I approached something which looked as if it needed doing. My first question was “Does it really need doing?”. If yes, there followed “Is someone already doing it?”, and then, if no “Is this something I could do?”, with the subsets of “Do I have time to do it?” and “Is there something more important which I should be doing?”.

If the task survived those steps, I considered it to be “my responsibility” to at least some extent – but I was frequently frustrated by the “Can I get paid for doing it?” which, of course, interacted with “do I have time?” and “is there something more important?” – having to make money in order to live frequently meant that I didn’t have time because there was something more important, namely keeping myself and my family fed, clothed and housed. I don’t have that frustration these days; instead my biggest frustration is that there’s a huge swathe of things I could once have done but now can’t, because I’ve got older, sicker, weaker and more prone to exhaustion than used to be the case.

“Is this something I could do?” is more multifaceted than might originally meet the eye, and not just because of age and disability; the first issue is whether it is something I could do well (if I couldn’t do it well, I’d prefer it to be done by someone who could do it well), and into that plays the question “could I enjoy doing it?”, because unless I could, I would be much less likely to do it well. As it happens, I’ve found that I can enjoy to some extent even the mindless mechanical and repetitive tasks which efficiency experts have historically wanted to divide labour into (which the article dwells on) – I can manage a form of working meditation in such circumstances without prejudicing my performance – but that may be a peculiarity of mine. (If you find this hard to accept, consider rosaries or other forms of prayer beads or the chanting of mantras as examples of such tasks…) Generally, however, I think that work which doesn’t engage the mind and which can’t be done well or badly, it can only be done or not done, though perhaps slower or quicker, is something best left to robots – and, of course, it increasingly is being left to robots.

So, to quote the article, “Now imagine for a moment that we were to reorganize the modern workplace to be keyed to everybody’s intrinsic motivation. It would mean an incredible revolution. CEOs would slave away out of faith in their companies, academics would burn the midnight oil out of pure curiosity, teachers would teach because they feel a duty to their pupils, psychologists would treat only as long as their clients require, and bankers would take pride simply in the services they render. Skill and competence would be treasured, instead of yields and productivity.”

One can but hope…

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Crying in the wilderness

December 30th, 2016
by Chris

I fairly recently encountered, in a comment thread, an assertion that the author was suprised that the writer of the original post (a Christian) could have supported Hilary Clinton as no real Christian could support the Democrats, because they were Socialists, i.e. Communists, and everything about Socialism/Communism was contrary to the gospel. I paraphrase there.

There is just so much wrong with that assertion, from my point of view, that it beggars belief. The easy bits are that the Democrats in the US are nothing like even remotely Socialist and Socialism is not equivalent to Communism (for any readers who are unaware of the fact, neither Socialism nor Communism demands a command economy, which is what most people to the right of centre – and that’s “centre” as understood in Europe, not as understood in the States – understand by both “Communist” and “Socialist”).

The more difficult bit is one which I have spent a fair amount of time writing about, for instance in “The System of Satan“, “Freedom with or without property” and “Towards a Christian economics“. I should stress that this is not a perspective which I consider at all radical, liberal or in any way contrary to the general tenor of the churches in the area where I grew up.

I was originally raised a Methodist, and in the UK the Methodists have long been associated with the Labour and Cooperative movements (the bedrock of the UK Labour Party, who were in those days, at least, unashamedly Socialist); our most prominent local Anglican vicar and a couple of our more prominent Catholics served terms as Labour (i.e. Socialist) local Councillors, and in the period during which I was centrally involved in the local Liberal Democrats (an amalgamation of the former Liberal and Social Democratic parties, thus at least somewhat Socialist) three local clergymen all donated to our campaigns and others indicated support, while a prominent URC elder was a fellow LibDem councillor with me. OK, I knew that some Anglicans tended to hold to the old saying that the Anglicans were “the Conservative Party at prayer”, but the clergy at least seemed to me to be significantly more in favour of centre-to-left political positions. The Archbishop of Canterbury has criticised Tory austerity as failing to care for the less privileged members of society, while the current Pope has condemned neoliberal economics. The Catholic Church in South America is well endowed with Liberation Theologians, and some of those are not only avowedly Catholic but also avowedly Communist. Until I started interacting significantly with American Christians about 20 years ago online, I would have said that Socialist-to-Communist was the natural political and economic stance for a committed Christian to adopt – maybe, at a pinch, what used to be called “One Nation” Conservatism, if people had too many qualms about the idea that following Jesus’s commands was actually rather too foolish (despite Paul’s statement about the gospel as he saw it – a foolishness to the Greeks -which you should nonetheless preach and live into, according to him).

Since then I have found that in the States, Christianity tends to be more associated with the Right than with the Left, and the American Right is a long way right of what we call “right wing” in the UK (although some here would very much like to catch up, since Margaret Thatcher managed to turn us from communitarianism to individualism…) It would also seem from Keith Watkins’ account of research done by James Wellman that US evangelicals believe “it is hard to be a political liberal and a Christian” (end of page 3), as well as a number of other beliefs which I would find grave difficulty in connecting with scripture. I’ve spent quite a bit of time arguing about this, most notably with Elgin Hushbeck (an Energion author, who used to co-present a weekly podcast called “Global Christian Perspectives” with me). This is not an universal characterisation – this author says “Christians who used their relationship with Jesus as a justifier to cast a vote for Trump (or engage in other acts contrary to the life model Jesus lived for us while on Earth) misrepresent our Lord and simultaneously complicate an already difficult mission of spreading the Gospel all over the world.” A secular author agrees… In my own case, I would have described myself 40 years ago as a centrist (in UK terms), but since then I’ve done a lot of reading of the gospels, and frankly the more I read them, the more “left wing” I think I should be, if I am actually aiming at following Jesus.

I’ve found that there are, in fact, arguments you can draw from scripture to support some standpoints I’d regard as “right wing”, particularly the more libertarian strand of the right. For instance, if you cast government in the role of either the 1st century Temple hierarchy or the 1st century Roman occupiers of Judaea, respectively the religio-political-social and military-political rulers, the New Testament is antipathetic towards both – scribes and sadducees, along with pharisees, get short shrift and, although there’s little direct criticism of Rome, there’s a lot of implicit resistance going on (for example, “render unto Caesar”, which actually says that Caesar owns nothing apart from his coinage, and “walk the extra mile” referring to the embarrassing of those demanding forced labour). It’s also hard to glean from it a suggestion that the Christian obligations to aid the sick, the imprisoned, the marginalised and (perhaps especially) the poor should be enforced by the ultimate threat of violence, which one must admit is the ultimate sanction of the modern state for failure to pay taxes (even if the violence is limited to that sufficient to imprison someone or to take assets from them). These charitable injunctions, I’m told, are followed more by right-wing Christians than by left-wing ones (though I question elsewhere whether that is actually the case…).

Now, as it happens, I disagree with these interpretations, and particularly with the basis claiming that governments in the West are analagous to the Roman Empire or the Second Temple hierarchy (which was by the first century at least significantly corrupt – the Essenes were just one of a number of groups formed as a reaction to that corruption, and early Christianity may well be viewed as another). Western governments are representative democracies, and therefore they are the community governing itself, at least in theory (in practice, there are many factors which distort the ideal of a representative democracy, and most if not all Western democracies could do with an overhaul – but the principle is still sound). While I would be hard put to find an argument for democratic government in the scriptures, quite a few protestant churches have determined that this is a valid way, in a “priesthood of all believers”, for the community to select its leaders, and I would definitely agree – with the caveat that, in my experience, democracies in churches function even less well than our political democracies  and could also do with some serious checks and balances. I can, however, see the point of them; Jesus nowhere actually condones the use of force to compel charity – though the tale of Ananias and Saphira indicates that the community did and should look extremely unfavourably on anyone who shirked this responsibility, and Jesus definitely thought that failures in this area would imperil people’s standings before him and before God, and the story of Ananias and Saphira indicates at the least that the early Christians wanted to place a huge measure of responsibility and societal opprobrium on those who did not contribute sufficiently (i.e. to the full extent of their abilities) to the common good.

Shunning and exclusion (which I suspect is at the root of that story) is not, as such, a threat of physical violence, but it is its own form of violence – emotional at the least. The equivalents of those, looked at from the perspective of a nation-state community rather than a Christian community among other communities in a wider society would probably look like outlawry (in which the non-compliant is denied any of the normal protections of the law), stripping of citizenship (with similar effect unless the Jewish and Christian injunctions to treat the alien as one of ourselves is followed) or banishment. I am not convinced that the threat of forcible imprisonment is actually a lesser sanction than those.

So, my conservative friends, I think you’re dead wrong in your interpretation of scripture here. Frankly, voting for anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders was voting for the less-Christian option, and the further towards the hardline Republicans you got, the further you got from Jesus.

But I fancy I’m a voice of one calling in the wilderness“… without, of course, wanting to suggest that I’m in any way comparable with the Baptist…

 

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Grace and cheque books

December 24th, 2016
by Chris

An interesting article in The Altantic talks of unemployment and underemployment as a “Spiritual Crisis”. The article is directed particularly at the United States, but the same general problems are very apparent in the UK as well. Evonomics has recently had an article talking of this from an economic perspective. I’ve also talked a bit about one of the drivers for this malaise in a previous post.

The Atlantic prescribes grace as a foundation for looking at people in a new way, and indeed that might be a good start. Economics values people as producers (and tries its best to reduce the amount spent on them, as this is an overhead, and overheads are to be avoided in the pursuit of profit), as providers of capital (those being the really valuable members of society, according to modern economics) and as consumers (though consumers aren’t really valued for themselves, merely as means to make greater sales). It doesn’t value them as people. Christianity, on the other hand, values every living human being in and for themselves, irrespective of what they produce, what they have or what they might buy. Indeed, it tends to downvalue what people have, as the story of the rich young man and the extolling of flowers and birds display. The sooner we can change hearts and minds to see economics as a tool for benefiting people rather than people as economic units, the better.

But preaching this is not going to be enough. Again as the Atlantic article touches on, people have been indoctrinated into seeing their worth as being in what they produce, which all too often translates to how much money they make (a false equivalence dictated by economics, which reduces everything to money and tends to declare that if something cannot be reduced to money, then it is worthless). I have been struggling with this deep-seated belief in myself for some years; in 2005 I had to give up work due to ill health, and having started to be capable of some useful activity (other than trying to get well) a little over three years ago, find that merely occupying myself isn’t sufficient – I have a couple of occupations which, when I feel under pressure to tell someone what I do, suffice – I am, part of the time, a theological editor and proofreader, and part of the time a research assistant doing chemical process development. OK, I am also a carer for my wife, an aspiring theological writer and a volunteer with mental health and recovery organisations, but those don’t really qualify as “job” – only the second might conceivably produce some money, and in no way would I expect it to be significant.

The snag is, neither the editing nor the research yields an amount which could be lived on, even cumulatively. I have a permanent voice at the back of my head asking whether what I do is useful, as that obviously determines whether I am useful. I can just about manage it with the editing – at least, there, the books I edit are published, and people read them, and even if the work pays peanuts, there is still use there. Less so with the research – even when we develop a process which produces a particular chemical for the use of less raw materials, less labour, less energy and/or less waste, we do not make any actual money unless someone buys that chemical. More to the point, unless someone buys it, no-one is going to use it, and the knowledge is going to sit in a file until it is wanted, which is possibly never. We don’t have the luxury of having a research grant, shifting the decision as to whether the chemical is useful to a funder, nor do we have the avenue of publishing a paper, as this just tells everyone who can read how to do the process and removes any hope of getting money for it.

My upbringing landed me with this kind of mindset, but all the pressure of society is in the same direction these days – you are what you do, and even more you are worth what your bank account says you are. I’m not American, nor do I come from a “working poor” background, but this article sums up the attitude I struggle against well: We applaud the rich and powerful for their industry, shrewdness, and cunning. The poor have nobody to blame but themselves. There are winners and losers. The market sorts them out according to their achievements. Since this all seems to run in families, it’s probably in the genes. Winners beget winners. Losers beget losers.

Preaching may, just, be sufficient to work against the wisdom of society as it currently is for a small group of people, but there is an urgent need to change the attitude of society as a whole, and I live in a society which is no longer predominantly Christian, so the “small group” is never likely to be able to influence societal views much (and, despite the predictions of some evangelicals that revival is just around the corner, I can’t see that happening). The situation is not going to get better within the neoliberal economic model we have – in fact, it can only get worse, as pressures such as globalisation and automation remove jobs which ordinary people can do, leaving only jobs requiring such a long process of learning, a large level of native ability and well-developed skill set as benefit only the few who are equipped by nature to do them and (as publically funded education is eroded) have the wealth to pay to be trained for them. I rather suspect that the widespread contempt for experts evidenced here during the Brexit campaign may have something to do with this trend – many are really sick of being told what to do by people who were born capable and rich and therefore have had the luxury of becoming experts.

So yes, we should practice grace as Christians – but we should also look for a new politics and a new economics, founded on a new understanding of humanity – as something more than a cheque book…

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