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The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

July 22nd, 2017

I’ve been reminded today of Ursula LeGuin’s brilliant short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (from “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”). While I strongly recommend that you read the actual story, it tells of a land where everyone is happy and well provided for – except one poor, retarded child, kept in appalling conditions and never to be spoken to kindly (if at all), a child who, moreover, once knew happiness and a loving family. The thesis is that the happiness and prosperity of the rest of the citizens is entirely dependent on the misery of that child; it is absolutely necessary for it to continue that the child be kept miserable. Adolescents are, at a certain age, shown the child, and the reason for keeping it so. Some of them, at that point, start walking, and walk all the way out of Omelas – presumably to another land which is far less attractive than is Omelas; others reach adulthood and, eventually, reach the same point and start walking.

There is a conservative interpretation of “the poor will always be with us”, which argues that it is inevitable in our society that some will be poor. This is, indeed, the inevitable end-point of neoliberal economics – there are going to be winners and losers, and a certain viewpoint argues that the losers need to be destitute in order to provide the appropriate incentive for people to strive to be winners. Indeed, that viewpoint is inclined to imitate the imperative in Omelas never to speak a kind word to the child, and label the unsuccessful as “shirkers”, “freeloaders”, “layabouts”, “parasites” or “deadbeats”. No doubt you can add several other pejorative expressions, particularly if you read some of the tabloid press.

Added to that, there is such paranoia at the idea that someone might just possibly get something they are “not entitled to” that those claiming benefits are made to feel like garbage (and probably criminal garbage) just for claiming, and people are removed from benefits for trivial reasons – or no good reason at all. Not a few of them are then so desperate that they take their own lives. Others end up living on the street…

If that is indeed the society in which I live, I want to walk away from it.

It is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity, in which grace (entirely undeserved benefits) is key, and God provides whether or not we toil or spin. We are, as Teresa de Avila remarked, the hands of Christ in the world. How can we not, communally, look after the least in our society?

The bad news, perhaps, is that there is nowhere to walk to. Globalism is ensuring that neoliberalism is everywhere.

The good news, the gospel, if you like, is that unlike Omelas, our society doesn’t have to be like this. We can be Christ’s hands, and feet, and body, and together makes something better.

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Taxation, theft and violence

July 15th, 2017

There is a very commonly used argument among conservative (with a small “c”) commentators that, when you transfer the implementation of social gospel principles to government, this is government taking from individuals what is theirs under the threat of force; many such commentators go on to describe this as “theft” or even “armed robbery”. I made an argument against this view on a number of grounds recently. It is, however, a powerful point, as I think there is little argument against the concept that Christians should be non-violent – aside practicality, which I would argue shouldn’t sway us from the general principle, just remind us that we still have to live in a “fallen” world.

Thinking further, however, the very idea that money “belongs to” us rests on the threat of force by government (if not by us – absent government, all we would have is force or persuasion, and persuasion rarely works against robbers) – if someone takes from me the notes and coins in my pocket, my recourse is to the criminal law, which considers that theft – and the criminal law is backed by force. If my bank refuses to pay when I issue a cheque or use my debit card, I need to rely on the civil courts to force them to abide by their contract – and again, that is ultimately backed by force (as at least one possible end-result of suing the bank would be for bailiffs acting on my behalf forcibly to appropriate some of the bank’s property).  Of course, the “value” of money is very arguably a fiction in the first place – when I “spend money” I am exchanging for actual goods or services something which has no intrinsic value of its own, any “value” of which rests on other people’s belief that it is exchangeable for other goods or services. One might say that this was a religion, being a belief-based system…

Those who propose this “taxation is theft” concept are pretty much universally free marketeers; they consider that bargains made between individuals (assuming a “level playing field” are a guarantee of prices being fair and reasonable. But such bargains are again contracts, and contracts can be broken (I hand over my goods and you refuse to pay…) with the ultimate sanction being force.

There’s an interesting (if over-long and over-provided with debating points rather than substantive argument) discussion online between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux, the fundamental issue of which is what Joseph calls “structural violence”. If you take something more like Joseph’s view, which I agree with, it is a part of the structure of a competitive economy which functions in a culture of scarcity that violence will be the result. (Incidentally, the link I give is from Joseph’s You Tube and describes it as a victory for Joseph; I have little doubt that if there’s a link from Molyneux, that would describe it as a victory for Molyneux. I doubt partisans of either would be convinced to change their views…)

Each of them has a favorite illustration, which I think is significant. Joseph’s is of the failure of a company he used to be employed by, and of the misery caused to employees who could not recover their wages; homelessness was one result. Molyneux’s answer to that was, firstly, to concentrate on the employee who was forced by his visa requirements (characterised as a government interference with the free market) to continue working although not being paid, and secondly to point to the existence of a corporation and bankruptcy laws (characterised as a government interference with the free market) as protecting the employer (in the last resort) from having to pay the wages. Other employees were, of course, constrained in the same way by the absence of jobs to go to (and the fear of resulting homelessness and starvation) and, absent government, would have been reduced to threats to the individual or individuals who owned the company to recover anything. I might add that, absent government restrictions on immigration, even people in Molyneaux and Joseph’s privileged position of being versatile, able and intelligent people able to obtain alternative jobs easily might not be enough – there are doubtless very many people in (for instance) India who would be very glad to do the same work for far less remuneration…

His third answer was to suggest that the company was clearly one which deserved to fail, and that Joseph was thereby liberated to pursue something which he did better. I pretty much equate this argument to that of Conservatives in this country who consider that cutting benefits to the unemployed “helps them to find work” by incentivising them – and that I equate to an suggestion that if you have excess food and your neighbour is starving, you are helping him magic food from nothing by refusing to share your own food.

Mostly, there are not jobs to go to in either of our countries unless you are very versatile, able and intelligent – and even then there may be nothing suitable, and the vast majority of people, as I learn from survey results, are only two or three pay checks from starvation and homelessness.

Molyneux’ preferred illustration was of his daughter selling lemonade at the side of the road; if, he suggested, she was not providing something which passers by wanted, or was not making a purchase as attractive as possible, she would not sell lemonade and would then be free to pursue some other avenue. This, of course, is an absolutely idealised example of a free market transaction, one in which daughter does not actually need to sell lemonade if she is to eat or be housed that day, and in which the passer-by almost certainly has absolutely no need of a drink of lemonade. Sadly, Joseph did not capitalise on the fact that this transaction was nothing like most transactions which occur.

But, of course, Molyneux would probably say that almost every transaction which we undertake is in some way distorted by the presence of government – and he would be right in saying that. His assumption is, however, that the influence of government is always negative rather than positive, and that is something which I absolutely do not agree with. Indeed, his absolutely free market system depends itself on government enforcing contracts…

Back to practicality, which I wish we could dispense with. There is going to be a need for the threat of force whatever system we adopt. Even the Acts church which we look to as a possible ideal had its own threat of force in the story of Ananias and Saphira, granted that was supernatural force. More recently, there have been denominations which have been very largely non-violent – the Quakers or the more modern Anabaptist traditions, for instance. They, however, have generally practiced shunning – an effective expulsion from their ranks of those who do not conform to expected standards – and that could colourably be regarded as a kind of passive violence, besides which it goes against the massively inclusive message of Jesus; tax collectors and sinners are your neighbours and you should love them, not shun them.

With some reservation, therefore, I reject the libertarian objection that taxation involves violence in favour of the absolute injunction to love your neighbour as yourself – and, as a community, taxation is the primary way in which we provide necessary care for our neighbours.

Taxation in order to pay for foreign wars, however, is another story!

 

 

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Tribes (interlude)…

July 3rd, 2017

Interesting cartoon on how tribalism makes communication more difficult.

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Death penalties and justice denied

June 17th, 2017

There is a piece on the Red Letter Christian blog which explains how a pastor changed his mind from approving the death penalty to opposing it.

I endorse the thinking there, but it didn’t escape my notice that, in the real life situation which John Grisham wrote about in “The Innocent Man”, the innocent man wasn’t actually executed, but his life was completely ruined by 11 years in prison.

I therefore ask myself whether, in truth, not having the death penalty is really the issue there. The real issue is the conviction of innocent people.

20 years ago, I had the opportunity of talking at length with a range of prisoners in a UK prison (the opportunity of talking at length to a lawyer without having to pay fees was irresistible!) This yielded two conclusions.

The first was that an alarming number of them (I estimated maybe 25%) had been wrongly convicted. I will grant that in the vast majority of those cases, they had merely been convicted of what was technically the wrong offence, or they had been convicted for an offence which they hadn’t actually committed on the occasion they were charged with, or they shouldn’t have been convicted on the evidence there was but were actually guilty, but there was still a residue of maybe 5%. That’s 1 in 20 prisoners who shouldn’t have been convicted at all.

OK, of those, maybe half had been so associated with people committing offences that it was difficult to have full sympathy with them. But that leaves 1 in 40.

The second conclusion was drawn from talking with some people who had been rightly convicted of serious offences such as murder or manslaughter, and who were nearing the end of their period of imprisonment. They had been in prison for years upon years – ten, twelve, even twenty five (in the case of the ex-IRA enforcer). And many of them were terrified about the prospect of being released. They couldn’t see how they could function in society any more (the ex-IRA guy commented that everyone he had known well was now dead). Three of them expressed a wish that there had been a death penalty and that they had been spared all those years of incarceration. One remarked that his life had effectively ended when he was imprisoned, and the rest was just torturous waiting…

They were maybe not as mentally damaged as the subject of Grisham’s book, but were in any event very damaged.

My point is that yes, the argument that you can’t later turn round and put right a wrongful conviction where the innocent has been executed is valid, but you also can’t put right a long period of imprisonment, at least not in the UK prison system (and, from everything I read and see, even less so in the US one). In some, but not all, cases, the government pays compensation to those wrongly convicted, but money is not an adequate restitution for what is probably irreparable psychological damage.

Is this an argument for the death penalty? Well, probably not. It’s more an argument for treating prisoners more like human beings and not subjecting them to horrific conditions.

But it is an argument that the US system, which operates to imprison people for very long periods and then execute them, is doubly barbaric. Yes, I know the delay is caused by a labyrinthine legal system which tries very hard to correct errors which occur. But justice deferred is justice denied.

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Unloading symbolism?

June 15th, 2017

Homebrewed Christianity has a podcast interview with Dennis MacDonald, who is talking about “mythologising Jesus”. It is well worth a listen; MacDonald has written a book examining the dependence in the Gospels on the Homeric epics and on Virgil (which were, in the Roman Empire of the first century, the pinnacle of literature – the Shakespeare and Dickens of the day, you might say). The thesis is that, in putting forward the importance of Jesus, the authors used figures from Greek and Roman myth, often slightly adjusting them to show how Jesus was greater than the heroes of the Iliad and the Oddesey.

This made me remember a post of mine from 2013, in which I talked about the meanings of “Logos”. I reference Philo of Alexandria there (as I am convinced that the writer of the Fourth Gospel was riffing off Philo’s ideas about Logos); the article on Philo in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy lists the meanings Philo arrived at for “Logos”. As you will see from the link, Philo found twelve meanings in “Logos”, from the utterance of God through God’s first-born son to God him or her self. Philo was, there, equating Logos with the traditions relating to Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, and adding a little of his own. The writer of the Fourth Gospel then made a linkage between Jesus and Logos – “and the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us”, thus loading onto Jesus the entire load of meaning of Philo’s conception of Logos, and thus also the entire load of meaning of Jewish concepts of Wisdom.

As MacDonald also comments, the writers of the Synoptic Gospels were keen to establish Jesus as superior to Biblical figures, notably Elijah and Moses; various stories in the gospels thus echo and improve on stories of Elijah and Moses, and, as MacDonald’s book now establishes, also Odessyus and Aeneas. Aeneas is particularly significant as being the founder of Rome in the Roman myth of creation. Simultaneously, Paul and other new Testament writers were drawing parallels between Jesus and the Roman Emperors who, from Augustus onwards, were titled “son of God”, “God” and “Saviour”, and lifting up Jesus to be superior to the Emperors in a strikingly subversive move.

I look at all this, and wonder whether the charismatic itinerant Jewish preacher and healer who was the historical Jesus can actually bear the weight of all of this symbolism. Certainly, loading all of this onto someone who was crucified by the Romans as a dangerous subversive and thus died in a particularly ignominious way, calculated to erase the identity of the crucified, is in and of itself a massively subversive move. I think this is probably faithful to the spirit of the itinerant preacher – whatever the mythicists may say (and MacDonald’s book is going to add strength to some of their arguments), I think we can say with some confidence not only that Jesus preached and healed, but that his preferred preaching style was the use of parables and those parables were generally subversive. Certainly John Dominic Crossan makes a fine case for this in his excellent “The Power of Parable”.

It is, of course, a feature of hero-worship that the hero becomes seen as better in every way than the actual person who is being idolised (and my use of that word indicates that I see a possible problem of idolatry in our view of Jesus), and certainly Jesus was seen as a hero by his followers. His death then cut the ground out from underneath most conceptions of heroes available at the time, but his status in the eyes of his followers grew instead of diminishing, and became more subversive in the process. The hero who dies heroically was not a new concept, but the hero who has more power when dead than he did when alive – that was revolutionary (or at least it was until Constantine adopted the Church, and the Church became Constantinian…).

Can he bear the load, though? The mythicists think not, and those of us with modernist and materialist leanings might well agree. My own worry is that in the process of loading onto Jesus so much symbolism, we have achieved contradictions – it has been the playground of theologians for 2000 years to try to square the circle of “wholly God and wholly man” and to determine whether there was in that combination one essence or two, one will or two, whether the status was given, assumed or pre-existent.

But then, is that not just an example of us, perhaps, loading too much onto the concept of God him or her self? The philosophical theologians, practising “natural theology” rather than “Biblical theology” have imposed on God all the excessive qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence – and the list goes on. Charles Hartshorne certainly tilted at some of the “omnis” in “Omniscience and other Theological Mistakes”.  Perhaps we should keep in mind, first and foremost, that Jesus was a particular (although very special) man who lived in a particular time and place, and that God is something which mystics claim to experience (as I do myself) but report that what they say of God is universally inadequate?

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Walls and pews and mindsets: a radical inside out perspective for authentic church

June 9th, 2017

A few years ago, the vicar of my then (Evangelical Anglican) church encouraged the congregation to meditate on the future of that church – so I did, and had a vision of the church turning itself inside out – literally (tales of topographical churches?). The floor lifted through the roof, everything along each side of the church reversed itself in order to become “outside” and the pews rearranged themselves to line the sides of what was now a single thick wall; everyone in them was now facing the streets on either side rather than into the body of the church. The former roof became canopies cantilevered over the pews, and I’m assuming the altar was now decorating the rear wall, which I couldn’t see.

I shared that vision with him after the service. I’m not sure he was entirely taken with the vision. I read speculation as to whether Christianity can survive without an institutional church; he may have had something of that sort in mind.

To be fair to that church, it does already spill out onto the street more than most others. The doors are open more than those of most other churches in the city, there are often events which spill onto the church forecourt (which is effectively just part of the street), and they do immersion baptisms on the forecourt in good weather. They welcome the homeless of the city in particular, and feed them one day a week.

They just need to do something about the 16th century walls and 19th century box pews, and the mindsets which go with them. A people set apart, by walls, and a people intent on themselves, protected by box pews (although the Peace does disrupt that somewhat).

I can relate to the impulse to become “a people set apart”, which I tend to think of as the Anabaptist option, thinking in particular of the various Mennonite sects, notably the Amish. Granted, I don’t do that from the standpoint of the religious conservative, as to a great extent they do; that seems to be the impulse which fuels “The Benedict Option” (a kind of new monasticism as proposed in a recent book by Rod Dreher) which plays to the moral impulses of conservatives to avoid contact with anything viewed as “impure”, to venerate authority and group loyalty. I’m not a conservative; my primary moral concerns are fairness and care, and I worry less about liberty, following authority and purity, which are values which tend to be placed high by conservatives, as Jonathan Haidt remarks in “The Righteous Mind”. I do however value loyalty to my group very highly – but I take the definition of my group from Jesus, whose parable of the Good Samaritan (which these days would probably be the parable of the good Isis fighter or, for me, perhaps the parable of the good Tory MP) tells me that everyone around me is part of my “in-group”. I also cringe at my necessary immersion in a culture which values self-centered  pursuit of money and conspicuous consumption very highly; I’ve characterised financialised free market capitalism as “The System of Satan” previously.

It’s that last impulse which removes the possibility of withdrawal from society as being a viable option. While I view it as a fairly conservative one at root, I take a radical view of its extent.  Jesus was renowned for consorting with extortionists (tax collectors) prostitutes and other low-lives; he was typically unconcerned about mixing with women or foreigners (even foreigners who were part of the occupying Roman forces), and didn’t have much time for ritual purity considerations – women with discharges, for instance.

So maybe that gives the background for my vision. There is a centre – the church walls in the middle. There is shelter – the roof cantilevering out in both directions, rather than rising to a central apex. But there are no walls, no separation from the life around it. In much the same way, I look to Jesus as the centre, the model for our lives, and see us as looking out from that perspective and welcoming towards us (and him) everyone “out there”, no matter how far from that centre they may seem to be. If we can attract their gaze in the direction of Jesus, they are going to be moving in the right direction.

And our overriding mandate is to love them as we love ourselves (or God; the second Great commandment is like unto the first), to care for them as we care for ourselves.

As we get closer to the centre, we become more closely the community which I think he envisaged; there is room there for a kind of monasticism, but a new one. I was recently at a lecture series by Robin Meyer, in which he told the story of a monastery which was originally set high on the hills overlooking Santa Barbara in California, with expansive views over the valleys below and complete peace; you could go there and “feel close to God”. However, wildfires destroyed the monastery some years ago, and the monks were given shelter by nuns living in the midst of the bustle of the city below. When the insurance paid out, the monks debated whether to rebuild up on the mountain, and decided their place was exactly among the people. The new monastery is not quiet and does not have a superior vantage point, but it is involved with the community as its predecessor wasn’t.

It has opened itself to the world. That is where I think we should always strive to be.

(This post first appeared on The Way Station blog, for which it was written).

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Shock UK election result!

June 9th, 2017

The exit poll was right…

…and that is most of the shock. In conscience, I’m not sure whether the exit poll was right because it was far better constructed than previous polls (though by all accounts it was, taking into account at least some subtleties such as what the Brexit vote had been) or because the pollsters have to be right sometime.

There were other shocks – departures such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson for the SNP, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats and, for the Tories, Gavin Barwell, Jane Ellison, Simon Kirby, Ben Gummer and Nicola Blackwood. Sadly, Amber Rudd (Home Secretary) was not among the fallen… by less than 400 votes.

What does this result tell us? In conscience, it is somewhat difficult to say with clarity. The Liberal Democrats have been squeezed in a good bit of England and Wales, but have come back fairly strong in Scotland – but in Scotland, so have the Tories and Labour. The SNP should not feel too disconsolate – they did, after all, win at the last election with swings of as much as 40%, and had very close to a clean sweep of Scottish constituencies; it was always very likely that they would lose several seats. So far as Labour is concerned, Jeremy Corbyn should be feeling very happy indeed; against predictions of a wipeout to less than 200 MPs, the party has done really well. It’s just a shame for him that the Conservatives picked up quite so many seats in Scotland, as they can now cling to power with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party (of Northern Ireland), who are basically UKIP but with nasty accents and a fundamentalist outlook. Five less seats or so, and we might have seen a failed Queen’s speech and Labour attempting to form a minority government, which would probably have succeeded. In Northern Ireland, the DUP have wiped out the Official Ulster Unionists, while Sinn Fein have wiped out the Social Democratic and Labour Party; NI is now a two-party system for the first time in 40 years or so.

UKIP got wiped out, typically losing around 10% of the vote – and they didn’t stand in quite a few constituencies, which benefited the Conservatives quite a bit, although not as much as UKIP must have hoped. Their votes didn’t, however, obviously benefit just the Conservatives (which one would have expected, given that UKIP’s sole policy was a hard Brexit), prompting regular comments during the election coverage of “swing from Labour to Conservative” or vice versa (generally Lab-Con in high Brexit areas, Con-Lab in high Remain areas) which irritated me hugely. What I think was happening was more that the UKIP voters voted Tory, and there was a consistent swing from Tory to Labour, just varying according to how anti-EU the constituency actually was – and even then, considering that the turnout was far better than in recent elections, I doubt there were all that many people formerly voting Tory and now voting Labour – it seems far more probable that some of the Tory voters stayed home and that Corbyn had managed to excite Labour voters (particularly young people) so as to increase their turnout disproportionately. Labour did do particularly well in seats with a high student population, and students have never previously been known for turning out in droves, but this time they did.

But it makes no sense, when a party shows an increase in its share of the vote, to talk of a “swing from them to…” another party, even where that party has increased their share rather more. That’s just daft talk.

The increased turnout itself is a very good sign for our democracy. Turnout in the 50-60% range has been replaced by turnout in the 70-80% range in many areas.

The big loser was, however, Teresa May. A few weeks ago, I complained bitterly of her wanting to ditch the Fixed Term Parliaments Act at the first opportunity, and of the other parties obediently rolling over and allowing her to do that. What she wanted and expected, of course, was to get a much increased majority on the strength of the polls, attacking Labour at a time of her choosing (which the Act was designed to stop happening). Instead, she lost the thin working majority and replaced it with a wafer thin one which relies on the DUP. I certainly didn’t appreciate her trying to game the system, and it seems the voters en masse didn’t appreciate it either.

She also lost on the basis that she campaigned on the basis of “vote for ME”, with the slogan “strong and stable government”. I don’t think the British electorate want presidents, and it was a very presidential campaign. Lastly, she lost on policy – the manifesto showed up the “nasty party”, with even more cuts for the old and the sick than have already been imposed, and we’ve frankly had enough of that.

Finally, what does this mean for Brexit? Well, with DUP support, no doubt May is going to keep trying for a “hard Brexit”; the talks are set to start in under two weeks, and there is no mechanism for stopping that. Hopes that this result might have killed a “hard Brexit” look unfounded. However, even with the DUP support and the probable absence from Westminster of the now 6 Sinn Fein MPs, the majority (which I calculate as 9) is too small for us to be able to rule out a revolt – there are still significant numbers of Tory MPs who were always Remainers at heart, and she needs pretty much every one of them. There are stories of thousands of voters being turned away from the polls because of the use of out-of-date electoral registers in several constituencies, and I can’t rule out a small crop of by-elections, assuming those results are declared invalid by election courts; that might further erode the figure.

Finally, the Tory party are not historically kind to failed leaders, and May has failed worse for them than any leader I can think of since Anthony Eden. I can see a divided party, with infighting and with a leadership contest in sight. The only thing which may save her is that the Conservatives think that if they change leader and call yet another election to give that leader a mandate, the electorate will punish them even more than they have already.

I think they’re right. But electoral prudence hasn’t always stopped them in the past.

Interesting times…

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On the suitability of politicians…

June 6th, 2017

I’m imagining a conversation in Ancient Rome:-

“You really ought to condemn all this trash talk about Senator Incitatus – after all, I condemned the trash talk about Senator Asinius”

“But there really is no comparison between Incitatus and Asinius – what was said about Asinius was slander, and on the whole he did a pretty good job, whereas Incitatus is completely unfitted to be a Roman Senator”

“Even so, fairness dictates that you should condemn all this trash talk about Incitatus and give him a chance – after all, he’s hardly been in post a year…”

“No, look, there REALLY is no comparison. Asinius was, after all, human, but Incitatus is a horse”

“Left-wing bigotry!”

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The Social Gospel: a mandate for our whole society

June 4th, 2017

Some while ago, I found myself (in the course of my editing work, which not infrequently involves trying to improve texts which adopt a theology I cringe at) trying to improve a book which basically argued against any attempt to implement the “social gospel” thought government action. I won’t link to that; I really would prefer it if no-one read it. Yes, it was my job to do that (in the same way as once upon a time I found myself arguing cases in court which I thought should lose, and not infrequently winning them), but just as in those cases I feel somewhat guilty for doing it. The author, in the broadest terms, was advancing the case that it was the job of the church (not the state) to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick and generally those without the most basic needs of human existence (Matt. 25:31-46), and that the state (in essence) took money from individuals under the threat of force, and therefore any such expenditure was immoral.

Morgan Guyton has an excellent piece countering the first of these arguments. That bites even harder in my country than in his, as weekly church attendance in the States is still fairly healthy at 20%+, while in my country it’s around 5%. However, I also have the benefit of having studied the history of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries at what I think equates to “college” level in the States.

If you go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution here, parishes cared for the needy within their parish. They didn’t always do it very well, but all parishes did it. The economy was largely rural, and there was a lot of social cohesion in farming communities anyhow; in towns and cities, there were masses of parishes, and there were also guilds which cared for the needy within their numbers. Tithing was ubiquitous up to Tudor times (and, with an established church, no-one was exempt), and then contributions via property rates were made under the Poor Laws. Then came the massive movement of workers away from the land and into cities, as the agricultural revolution axed the need for agricultual workers and the huge demand for cheap, mass-produced goods from England throughout the world (most of which didn’t catch up with industrialisation until significantly later) demanded masses of workers in the towns and cities. There was a hiccup for a while as mass production eliminated many skilled jobs, notably in the textile industries, but export led demand soon mopped up much of the surplus labour, albeit at a fraction of the skilled wages they had commanded.

In 1836, the new Poor Law dictated that relief should only be given within the system of workhouses which had been growing up in an attempt to stem the cost of caring for the poor. The workhouses were appalling places to find oneself, and my grandparents generation had, in general, a mortal fear of ending up “on the parish” as a result; they were organised round the principle that it should never be remotely attractive for someone to be in them (recent Conservative governments would regard that as “helping people to find work”…) and they magnificiently achieved that, except in a few isolated instances where those administering them thought, generally on good Christian principles, that caring for the needy should mean a little more than hard labour on starvation rations in prison-like surroundings. The system was also adorned with the bussing of people back to their “home parish” and by disqualification from voting for those receiving assistance in some cases, reminiscent of US disqualifications from assistance and voting both for “felons”. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. Some while ago I wrote about this, linking to a programme by Ian Hislop criticising the renaissance of the thinking which led to this, which is now available on You Tube (and not via the link I then gave); it repays another viewing.

The Liberal and then Labour governments of the first half of the 20th century rightly thought this system was barbaric, erratic and inadequate, and steadily dismantled it, culminating in the National Insurance Act of 1911, the 1946 National Health Service Act and the 1948 National Assistance Act which gave us a welfare state.

My point is that history shows that even in a country with around 90% church attendance and around 98% nominal Christianity, the charity of churches and their members failed miserably to meet the need – even in an age when, frankly, the payments to the church were backed up not only by immense moral pressure but also with force. No objections were made to the transition from relying on tithes to the Poor Law rates on the basis that this was effectively “demanding money with menaces”, which is what many conservatives seem to regard taxation as being (generally unless it’s to pay for inflated militaries or bailouts for companies…); the idea wasn’t something which could sensibly be thought  in those days.

Why?

Because by and large, people recognised that they were part of a community, and they were organising that community in accordance with Christian principles to care for the needy. It helped, perhaps, that not only was that community overwhelmingly Christian in at least nominal belief and in actual attendance, but the flavour of Christianity which the vast majority espoused was the established religion; it was so enmeshed with the state that the two could not be separated. In case any readers from the US should be under any misconception, the nation (in its communal aspect of parliament) controlled the church, rather than vice versa; it was nothing like a theocracy, at least from the mid 1700s onwards.

Separation of church and state is, of course, a principle dear to American hearts; their national myth is, after all, that the Pilgrim Fathers were escaping religious persecution in England (though in fact they were escaping religious tolerance in Holland and looking to set up their own near-theocracy in the New World), and insofar as that means that no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of religion, I agree with it. However, I think that separation is probably impractical and definitely problematic in theory.

Impractical because the example of the United States, the first country to espouse separation of church and state officially, is that it is more religiously oriented than any of the European democracies which still have, at least nominally, a state church. Much has been written recently about the co-option of Christianity into a sort of national religion of empire in the States, and there are disturbing suggestions that some politicians on the right in the States espouse a form of Christian Dominionism. Vladika Lazar Puhalo wrote: “We must remember that America is not actually a Christian nation because the religion of America is America, it is not Christ. Jesus Christ is a sort of misused ‘front’ for American self-worship, which often crosses the border into a nationalist idolatry.”

Problematic in theory because any politician needs to take with them into office their morality and ethics, and where those are founded in Christianity, saying that there must be separation of church and state starts looking like “leave your morality at the door when you enter government”. As this seems to be an extremely powerful drive in any event, judging by the crop of politicians both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, the last thing it needs is a theoretical underpinning. I can speak personally here, as someone who stood for elected office multiple times and who was elected as a local councillor over rather more than 20 years; I consider it right that, as a Christian, I looked to bring Christian principles into my expression of the will of the community as a whole. That would have been the case even if the majority here were not culturally inculcated into Christian principles even if only a small minority actually practice Christianity in any formal sense; if I could get elected, I would be elected precisely for my moral and ethical principles (together with their expression in my manifesto), and I would expect the same to apply to any Muslim, Jewish or other religious candidate (and, incidentally, having studied most of the great religions, a candidate espousing any of them would not as a result be debarred from attracting my vote – though anyone espousing Christian Dominionism certainly would!) No, we desperately need moral politicians, and I would prefer my candidate to have some religious or philosophical underpinnings for morality (there is no need for God to figure in those – humanism will do very nicely).

I need to stress this aspect of community. The right, and particularly the Libertarian strand of the right, consider that any infringement upon individual freedom is anathema. To them, government is intrinsically a bad thing, as it takes from the individual, under the threat of force, and applies the resulting taxes to something they would not want to buy for themselves. Notably, this is things like food and drink, medical attention and housing for their neighbour. If they are Christians, they will acknowledge that they are obliged to care for their neighbour, and will argue themselves blind that no-one should usurp their God-given right to fail to do that. Morgan Guyton has rightly pointed out that in the States that is happening now, and I have outlined some social history in England which comes to the same conclusion.

I do not consider that this fantasy of the Libertarians is warranted. None of us springs fully armed from our father’s brow; “it takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb hailing from Nigeria, but is very true – most of us are unable to fend for ourselves until aged well into double figures, and in a modern world full functioning may need to wait until at least our 20s. We are social animals, and John Locke’s “no man is an island” is as true now as it was when he wrote it. We all arrive at adulthood on the basis of a collossal amount of other people’s time and money, and, as we cannot sensibly pay those who spent so lavishly, fairness indicates that we should “pay it forward”. The article I link to, by the way, understates the parental contribution substantially and fails utterly to account for the whole societal infrastructure in which we are brought up. A reasonable estimate would probably indicate that our society had contributed substantially more than did our parents – and unless we elect to go and “live off the grid”, we continue to benefit from that. Much of that infrastructure is provided or at least contributed to by government. Thus, even if “government” were a dictatorship (as another part of the American founding myth wrongly thought King George was), it is very sensibly arguable that we grow up in debt to it, and should honour that debt (an argument made in huge detail several centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes – though he preferred a respresentative system – treating it as a “civil contract”).

But government is not a dictatorship on either side of the Atlantic; both the USA and the UK are democracies, though the USA is a republican democracy and the UK is technically a constitutional monarchy; both are, assuming their democracies work, ruled by the people for the people. I will grant that neither of those democracies works anything like perfectly at the moment, but that does not entirely delegitimate the government.

It is a source of continual surprise to me that so many conservatives have this view of government. One would have thought that obedience to government (involving both regard for authority and group loyalty, both conservative moral values) would have had some impact. Romans 13:1-2 would also indicate strongly that this should be a value which Christians should take seriously, though I confess that as a liberal it is not a value which I would ever place above fairness or care.

Perhaps, though, this conservative impulse involves defining the group to which they are loyal to exclude, for example, the poor? The poor, after all, are inclined to be smelly and messy, which excites conservative values of purity, and may well not be good church-goers (assuming they are allowed and welcomed in church, which is far from being the case). I do not think we can be good Christians and exclude anyone from “our community” or “our people”, however; Jesus reached out to the poor, the sick, the ritually unclean, the morally dubious, the foreigner, the member of an heretical religion and the enemy soldier of the occupying power. Oh, and women and children, of course… Frankly, I think that if you are excited by a purity instinct, you should consider that the poor are smelly and messy and disruptive largely precisely because they are poor, and purity can as well be satisfied by giving them sufficient that they are not poor any more. Give to someone sufficient to raise them from the lowest, mere subsistence level of Maslow’s hierarchy and they will usually stop being smelly, messy and disruptive – and if they don’t, it’s probably because they’re ill, and require another element of basic care.

Given that we cannot in conscience exclude anyone from our community, I fail to see why conservatives are not moved by the fact that the presence of poor and marginalised people reflects upon all members of the community – the adage that a community is only as rich as its poorest member seems to have no traction.

But, of course, a primary conservative value which Jonathan Haidt does not identify is the reverence for private property. I questioned whether this was something which had a sound foundation some time ago; I fancy that the controlling texts should probably be “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1) and “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), even if I did not argue that the fundamental sin which might just be original is in fact self-centredness and that the pursuit of profit (possessions) is the foundation of following Satan. And no, I am not a paragon of virtue in this respect; I have not sold everything I have and given it to the poor – or even half of it. Recognising, however, that I probably should have done this, I really am in no position to complain that I am taxed to provide for the community at large; if that taxation provided reasonably adequately for everyone in my community, I could feel less guilty about keeping possessions other than those I was actually using at the time – but it does not, so I will consistently vote for parties which want to tax more and provide more benefits – and I will feel good about paying the resulting tax bill.

There is, however, one value shared by liberals and conservatives alike, fairness, which leads to difficulties here. To the conservative, it is fair that he who works should not have to support he who does not work. The sentiment is summed up in a rhyme I learned many years ago (and for those who don’t remember pounds, shilling and pence, a sixpence was half of a shilling)
“What is a communist?
One who has yearnings
to share equal profits
from unequal earnings.
Be he idler or  bungler
or both, he is willing
to fork out his sixpence
and pocket your shilling”.
I feel that too, and indeed when I originally learned it, I agreed with it wholeheartedly (I hadn’t spent so many years reading the gospels then…). But I find that although there are always going to be those among us who want to freeload (just as there will always be the poor, although that statement should not excuse us from trying to eliminate poverty), most people want to work, and they want to work at something which seems useful. Although the parable of the vineyard is often used to justify huge discrepancy in rewards for work (and I’ll return to that in a moment), I think it should better be read as indicating that if you do work as much as you are able to (and that is what the later workers in the vineyard were doing) you should still receive a living wage.

To the liberal sensibility (and, I think, to at least some conservatives) fairness also demands that there should not be absolutely collossal differences in what people can earn from a day’s work. That is not to say that there should be no difference at all (or that the Marxist maxim of “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” should be strictly adhered to, just that it is difficult-to-impossible for most of us to see fairness where one person “earns” in an hour what another couldn’t earn in years.

There seems to be, among at least some conservatives, a trusting faith that “the market” means that a person is paid what they are worth, without examining whether there is any foundation for that. I really can’t see that that is well-founded when (for instance) a trainee salesman can earn many times what a qualified nurse earns, given that he’s selling a reasonably high-value product. “The market” seems to have little or sometimes no regard for how long people have to train in order to be able to do the job, how many years experience they have doing it, how dangerous or unpleasant it is or any of a number of other factors which a normal person might think should lead to higher wages.

Equally, there seems to be a persistent belief that everyone can educate themselves into a position where they can succeed. This seems particularly prevalent among Americans, coupled with the “work hard and you’ll succeed” myth. That just plain isn’t true either, and it’s getting less true as the jobs which haven’t been automated require more and more training and ability in order to do them. An increasing percentage of people just don’t have the capacity to be trained to the point at which they can command serious wages (as the skill level of the jobs increases) and things are made worse by the advances in technology making old jobs redundant and providing new jobs which require retraining; these days, a “job for life” is increasingly a thing of the past, and people should expect to have to retrain every few years for an entirely new occupation. From what I can see, the majority of people just can’t do that, however hard they work at it.

As Christians, we should not assume that wealth means that we are worthy of that wealth. Allan Bevere writes:- “Indeed, if blessedness is conditional, then those in positions of wealth and power need to be concerned that their situation is a result of a certain character that results in being cursed. Thus, wealth and power are not the result of blessing; they are the result of a character disobedient to the covenant. While Matthew does not explicitly mention the character of those who are cursed, in Jesus’ Jewish context it is clearly implied. Luke makes the curses, the woes, explicit in his Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:22-26)

I need, however, to return to the concept of community. There has been a regrettable tendency in Christianity to focus on the individual; reformed and evangelical theology in particular think in terms of individual salvation; you are saved irrespective of the situation of other members of your family, or other members of your community. I think this is possibly very seriously flawed in the light of the Biblical witness.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly those charting, from a theological standpoint, the history of Israel, there is a regular pattern of ascribing success or failure of the whole people of Israel to how they have acted in respect of God’s commandments. A paradigmatic example of this is found in Isaiah 1:1-17, which ends with the words:- Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow”.

It is the people as a whole who are condemned by the Prophet, and it is the people as a whole who are suffering as a result – and their wrongdoing is precisely the communal lack of care for the oppressed and marginalised, in this case symbolised by the widow and the orphan (though they tend to be emblematic, the categories included in the Biblical injunctions to provide are not restricted to widows and orphans, but include the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and the foreigner). I have near certainty that among the people there will have been a few who adhered to all those injunctions, who were even charitable paragons of virtue – but, as I outlined earlier, their efforts were not enough. You need the whole society to be observant.

Now, I do not myself have a concept of God as one who will bring down on us foreign invasion, famine, plague or other natural disaster as a result of our communal failure to provide for those unable to provide adequately for themselves; I don’t think that God acts in the world in that way. But I do endorse the Prophet’s vision that our communal failure to provide for the least among us is a stain on our whole society. My own vision is that Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:37-40 need to be taken literally; we are failing to provide for Jesus himself inasmuch as we fail to provide for every one of the needy around us.

And we have to do that as a society, not just as a little group of people who have the same beliefs.

In the words of John Donne:-

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.  “

 

 

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The Living Years

June 1st, 2017

A recent “Nakedly Examined Music” podcast featuring Steve Hackett threw me into a voyage of discovery into albums by members of Genesis other than those from the goup itself, and this resulted in me listening to “The Living Years” from Mike and the Mechanics, the eponymous Mike being Mike Rutherford, the Genesis bassist.

When that came out, it seems in 1988, I noted it as something I liked, but not much more than that. In 1988, however, I still had a full complement of parents (Mr. Rutherford wrote that after losing his father). My father died in 2001, my mother in 2014, and at this point the song really stikes home forcibly.

I definitely didn’t spend enough time talking with my father, in particular about religion and spirituality, but also about his immense life experience. I fancy he’d been somewhat traumatised by having an evangelical atheist son (as I was from around 9 to 14 years old) and was reluctant to argue, though actually there was huge room for discussion rather than argument during at least the last 10-15 years of his life. But I was busy, and preoccupied, and the time passed me by. I spent more time with my mother after that, but again only had about a year after I emerged from the depths of depression and was sensibly able to listen to her at length, and it wasn’t enough.

So, in the words of the song:-
Say it loud (say it loud), say it clear (oh say it clear)
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late (it’s too late) when we die (oh when we die)
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

If you’re lucky enough still to have parents, go and talk to them.

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