Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

Give to those who ask

May 13th, 2017

I’ve just read a piece on dealing with panhandlers (for an UK audience, street beggars) which I thoroughly approve of. I want to focus on one of the “rules”, the second “If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do.

I regularly hear people saying “don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol”, and in a neighbouring city the churches often have cards in the pews advising not to give money to beggars, and giving details of charities for the homeless which people can give to instead. I know people who will gladly buy beggars a coffee or a sandwich, but will not give money.

I don’t normally do that. I try to follow Jesus’ instruction “give to anyone who asks of you”. After all, I am attempting to follow him, to love him – and if I love him, I will follow his commandments, no? He didn’t leave wiggle room for “only if I think it’ll be spent on something I approve of”, after all.

OK, if I judge that someone will absolutely definitely be spending anything I give them on drugs or alcohol, I will buy a coffee or a sandwich instead, and I will judge that on the basis that they are already high or drunk, and assuming that their need for drugs or alcohol has already been taken care of, but the nature of addiction is such that there is no such thing as “enough”.

Otherwise, though? I’ll give them money, and look them in the eye and talk to them, and if I have time spend a few minutes chatting.

Yes, they may go and spend the money on drugs or alcohol, but it is a gift, and is theirs to do with as they want. God can exercise undeserved grace towards us, so we might try to mirror that. I know only too well that, for an addict, if they have not taken their drug of choice (which might be alcohol) recently, that is going to be so pressing a need that it will eclipse any other, more prudent use of money.

But if I answer their immediate need, they will not need (for instance) to steal to feed their addiction, nor to prostitute themselves, at least for a short time – and that is a good. With luck, as that need is filled, they may use the next money they get from begging to get food or non-alcoholic drink or towards getting lodging for the night. I don’t know that that will happen, but I hope it will.

And, in any case, I will have shown them that someone cares about them, someone recognises them and that they are still a part of society, that they are not the rubbish amidst which so many of them live.

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Save the Cheerleader?

February 9th, 2017

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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A God of psychotic unconcern?

August 6th, 2016

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-

94. THE SAVED AND THE DAMNED

1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

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A free market exchange of views…

July 17th, 2016

Elgin Hushbeck has written an impassioned piece in favour of capitalism. I quote him at length:-

“One of the common criticisms of those on the left, particular the religious left, is that capitalism is an evil system because it treats individuals as commodities of momentary worth, rather than as people made in the image of God.  This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.

One reason for this is that at its core capitalism is based on a mutual giving among individuals that is, at least ideally, freely chosen.  There is nothing in this that demands greed or exploitation.  Granted we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives, but this is a problem with all systems, from sports to science, movies to teaching, the private sector, government, and yes, even socialism. It is hardly limited to capitalism.  People are people, regardless of where they are.

and

There is nothing inherent in capitalism that makes men greedy or teaches them to exploit others, in fact if anything it is the opposite for capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual.  Since it is based on mutual consent, it encourages people to be concerned with the needs of others, which I believe is one of the reasons those supporting capitalism are on average more charitable than those supporting socialism.”

Now, as Elgin is my opposite number from the Global Christian Perspectives webcasts (currently in hiatus pending new technology and a new format), and by “opposite” I mean in politics, theological stance and country (the UK and the USA being opposites at least from the point of view of the Atlantic), and he is therefore well aware of my take on capitalism; I still recall the expression on his face when I called free market capitalism “the System of Satan” (which I later elaborated on in a post of the same name). I have written other posts in a similar vein – “Depression, the System of Satan and the Devil’s Evangelism”, “Freedom with or without Property” and “What price Free Trade”.

Do I feel just a teeny bit targeted by that This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.” ? Well, even if Elgin hasn’t read all those four posts of mine (and I’m not going to recapitulate them here – you can click through and read or reread them to see that I do have some very good reasons for thinking the way I do), I think it isn’t unreasonable to think I am, if not THE target, then part of the target. Mind you, it does seem possible that this is just turnaround, and he felt himself targeted as one of the “Devil’s Evangelists”. That would be fair enough, I suppose.

What, then, does it “tell you about me”? It seems to me that in writing it, Elgin meant to imply that my view of capitalists is an overly negative one (after all, he goes on to paint a picture of capitalists as benefactors of all…). What it should tell you is, I think, expanded upon in the four blog posts I link to, but Elgin hasn’t dealt with the contents of those, so I suspect he hasn’t read them. They would also tell him that I’ve reached my position largely due to reading and rereading the synoptic gospels.

But yes, it does tell you that I don’t regard capitalists as generally beneficial to humanity as a whole. For that I have good reason.

It tells you, perhaps,  that I read a bit of economics occasionally, in which people are either units of consumption, units of production or “wealth creators” (i.e. profit takers). Elgin himself is fond of saying that taxation is bad, because it holds back “wealth creation”.

It tells you that I’ve encountered (and advised) large companies governed by cost accountants, balance sheets and share prices, I’ve encountered (and advised) individuals ground down to unsustainable wages and then continually pressured to make more and work harder and faster for no extra benefit to them than that they keep their jobs while the capitalists they work for grow rich, and others thrown on the scrapheap of society as unemployable and therefore worthless, and somehow also morally reprehensible.

It tells you that I’ve seen societies in which the size of your bank balance is the main indication of your worth as a human being (and on both sides of the Atlantic that is increasingly true). It also, perhaps tells you that I spent a significant part of my life enslaved by the fear of loss of financial security and the need to make more (as I deal with in the second post above) and have only with substantial pain learned that that is a way to exist, but not a way to live.

But actually, if you read on in the piece I’ve quoted, it tells you not about me in myself, but about me not being a writer who confuses capitalism with a market economy – perhaps particularly a “free market economy”. Capitalism is about the ownership of the means of production by individuals, which in and of itself seems innocuous enough; you can have a capitalist economy with very restricted trade, as indeed we used to in the UK when mercantilism was the dominant economic model (and, for what it’s worth, I think the free market version of capitalism is significantly superior to the mercantilist version).

As with the rest of Elgin’s piece, however, he describes (in descibing a free market rather than a capitalist economy) an idyllic world in which everyone bargains freely for everything they want or need with others who merely wish to make a reasonable return for their labour, and if he actually lives in a world which generally operates like that, he is incredibly lucky and privileged.

Actually, in order for the bulk of his transactions to resemble the picture he paints, he must be truly privileged and have a significant disposable income as well. Those who are “scraping by” or who are dependent on low-paid employment in order to exist will not recognise that picture, wherever they live.

No society I have encountered actually operates that way. In small towns in the UK, some businesses certainly used to operate like that when I was growing up (though by and large not in cities), but not any more – that type of business owner has mostly been driven out of business by large companies, and those who survive, survive on the margins. Most typically this change is seen in the case of small retailers who have almost all fallen to the supermarkets and chain stores, which, of course, operate purely for profit; these may try to make their customers happy, but this is at the expense of their producers and their workers (and in the celebrated cases of Wall-Mart and others like them, the expense of the taxpayer who subsidises the workers’ poverty wages). Both their producers and their employees scrape along without any of the supposed benefits of a “free market”, the first because there is now nowhere else to sell to, the second because if they raise any objection they can be fired and instantly replaced by one of the millions of jobless.

His idyllic scene, of course, only works if we ignore the fact that (as he concedes)  “we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives”Better, I think, that we assume that people are not driven that way and be agreeably surprised if things turn out otherwise – but please, let us not make a virtue out of greed and exploitation. Elgin writes of an idealised (I’m tempted to say “fantasy”) capitalism, suggesting that greed and exploitation are not at the root of a free market capitalist economy, but this is not what conventional economic theory says; he claims “capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual”. However. the form capitalism has actually developed to (which is probably properly described as “financialised capitalism”), does not remotely “seek an exchange that is best for both sides”, it attempts to extract the maximum price for the least possible overheads (and the wages of employees and the quality of raw materials are both overheads). Anything else hurts the bottom line, and impedes “wealth creation”.

This is traditional economic theory, which holds that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. In other words, it demands exactly “greed and exploitation”, and rewards both with bonuses for CEO’s and managers. This capitalism indeed does not “care what motivates a transaction” (as Elgin says later), but it also does not “care whether it is freely entered into by both sides” contrary to what he suggests – indeed, it prefers monopolies, particularly in goods which are necessities, and in labour relations it prefers that the option is “take what we offer or starve”. For example, our young people are increasingly forced to take “zero hours contracts” where they are at the beck and call of the employer, but the employer has no obligations to them.

It is unfortunately the case that in a free market businesses grow inexorably towards monopolies (or at least cartels) and as Adam Smith wrote “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The result is that the ideal of the free market is distorted by the players in the market, until it stops being free, and until it takes at least partial control of government, as this article shows. The “wealth” (i.e. ownership) becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands until a very few people hold almost all the ownership and power – and money, and therefore worth as human beings.

It is also resolutely short term, because it is forced to be that way by the financial system which sees only the last balance sheet and profit and loss statement, and will take profits where it can, as there are always other bigger short term profits to be made than building for long term stability of a company. Whatever type of motivation people may have personally, finance-driven capitalism substitutes the law of the bottom line.

Elgin is, of course, right that at the root of much of this is the insurance companies, pension schemes and banks on which we normal human beings rely – and so very few of us are not in the end complicit in this system. Short term means that you do not want your employees to be loyal, just to work harder (they can always be replaced), you do not care about the environment (far too long term!), you do not care about quality as long as you can get people to buy (what, after all, are marketing and advertising for?). The fact that we are complicit, however, does not mean that the system is good…

Finally, he contrasts capitalism with socialism, which he states needs a strong central government, and suggests that as government restricts autonomy, this is axiomatically a bad thing.

Now, bearing in mind that markets (as we have seen) tend to produce monopolies, and monopolies are bad even from the point of view of the most ardent free-marketeer, and that capitalism tends to produce a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals with a larger and larger percentage of wealth/ownership, which itself distorts the market (a free bargain for something requires that you have disposable income sufficient to buy, which is increasingly not the case for a large proportion of society, and mere disparity in power to purchase negates any sense of free bargain), there is clearly a need for something to mitigate these effects (and the other negative effects I’ve mentioned above, including perhaps most strongly the short term perspective of everything), and as businesses and the markets are not going to deliver that, government must; that is to say the people acting as a whole by their representatives and employees must take a stand to prevent the domination of everything by a few corporations. Many of those corporations are now multi-national and have  wealth and power well in excess of that of some countries, so government must be at least that strong.

However, Elgin has a point with which I do agree. Just as corporations tend to get bigger, so does government, and the larger something is, the more remote it is from its ultimate owners even in a system of representative democracy. Just as by the time I have followed through the investment of my pension through multiple companies, my voice cannot be heard, so by the time my democratic vote has been filtered through a party system, a lobbying system and the necessary apparatus of civil servants my voice also cannot be heard (though it is there somewhat easier, as I can at least find where to meet my immediate representatives in person).

In addition, the financial power of big business, big finance and the very wealthy allows them to influence government in a way the ordinary individual cannot match, even in combination, just as it creates automatic distortion in markets. Elgin and myself are agreed that this is a bad thing, but he appears to consider that capitalism, left to itself, will produce a beneficial effect and that anything else is transferring power to government and is therefore axiomatically a bad thing. I consider that capitalism and government both are at least somewhat broken; capitalism needs restraining, but so does government – and we have, in theory at least, the means to restrain government via the ballot box.

I am thus very slighly hopeful, seeing the collapse of both our UK main political parties in infighting, that we may see a political restructuring here which may, just possibly, restore a small amount of control to the individual voter. Maybe in the course of that, the messages that bigger is not always better and that local issues should be dealt with by the people who live there may strike home. Perhaps, just perhaps, we could see the possibility that all of big business, big finance and big government might have their wings clipped.

It’s a small hope, but I need to nurture it.

 

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Orlando: a delayed reaction

June 17th, 2016

I was going to post something immediately I heard the news about Orlando, but thought “No, wait and see, don’t shoot from the hip, it’s usually a bad idea”. And, indeed, I’ve seen a lot of posts and TV interviews where people have been proving me correct.

Orlando is a tragedy. With so many killed and injured, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who are closely affected by the loss of a loved one or friend, or their serious injury, and my heart goes out to them (as do my prayers).

It is particularly a tragedy because it was caused by one human being. And yes, he no doubt had a family and friends who are also traumatised, probably in part by a feeling of guilt that they did not see it coming and do something to prevent it (all I’m actually aware of at the point of writing is his ex-wife, who is trying to find reasons in his history with her which would make sense of this action – and, so far as I can see, failing).

I can understand people’s distaste for the fact that it has immediately become political. But that was always going to happen, and no doubt that was in part the intention of the shooter. The article I link to rather effectively goes through the set of responses which one might expect, in part because they have happened so many times before. They somewhat reflect the seven stages of grief, no doubt deliberately. What is not there, however, is a practical suggestion as to what might be done to make events like this less common in future. Another way in which this is a tragedy is that these mass shootings happen so frequently. The same author in fact provides a suggestion here. I’ll come back to that…

We were, however, always going to ask ourselves “What caused this, and how can we avoid it happening again?”, and that is inevitably political. Despite the attempts of some media to divert attention to the shooter’s espousal of ISIS, the first answer to that has to be homophobia. Hate of homosexuals. If you’re not acting out of homophobia, you don’t target a gay night club; if you’re following ISIS’s normal script of the horrendous decadence of the West, any old nightclub would have done. Or an university… we should not forget that 50 dead is not exceptional by some standards.

It is possible that fundamentalist religious beliefs were a secondary cause; after all, the shooter was Muslim and did announce his adherence to ISIS. However, there is precious little sign that he was an observant Muslim or that he had any contact with radical Islam other than from reading stuff online. That said, fundamentalist Christian beliefs fuel homophobia even better than do fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, and do so far more prominently in the States. If any blame is to be cast on Islam, it probably needs to be equally allocated to Christianity. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is frankly bullshit; if you hate something which is a fundamental aspect of someone’s character (as is sexual orientation) you’re hating the person; the two things are not separable.

The fact that this guy was able to go out and equip himself with guns (and in particular a semi-automatic rifle) despite being on a watch list for potential terrorism and having a history of matrimonial violence is absolutely a cause, and probably a primary cause rather than a secondary one. The possession of semi-automatic weapons makes it possible to kill a lot of people very quickly (as in fact happened); yes, I accept that the unavailability of guns would not have guaranteed this did not happen (he could have bought ingredients and built bombs instead), but he could not go out and buy ready-made anti-personnel bombs. Or at least, I don’t think he could have, even in the States. That would have required patience, planning and some expertise, and while he could have found instructions on the internet, each piece of planning and construction required gives another chance for someone to think better of a course of action. This is something which I completely fail to understand that America has not fixed, although some reasons for that may come out later. The UK and Australia have both reacted to mass shootings with stringent gun control, and neither have had any mass shootings for quite some time…

The thing is, there was an immediate interest in finding that this guy was another Islamic radical terrorist, and then some suggestion that he might have been gay himself. Why? I suggest because either of these would shift blame to a group who could be attacked; so would suggestions that he was mentally ill (frankly, for someone to do that, he would have to be mentally ill in some sense, but the vast majority of the mentally ill are no more dangerous to those around them than the average ostensibly well-balanced person). It would shift blame to an “other”. It would not require any consideration that the average man or woman in the street is in some way responsible for this. If he was, for instance, in fact homosexual, if you’re not LGBT, you could say “Oh, it’s a problem within the LGBT community, it’s not MY problem”. You would, of course, be wrong – the problems of the LGBT community are mostly caused by the attitudes of the non-LGBT community, especially the self-hating which this would argue.

As soon as you identify the problem as being an “other”, there are calls to attack that other. That is where I see a massively widespread malaise in American society, exemplified by the products of its entertainment industry; the solution to a problem is to go and shoot the person or persons responsible. In this thinking, the solution to gun violence is more guns – “It wouldn’t have happened if there had been a good guy with a gun in there” is often the refrain. Well, in fact, there was a “good guy with a gun” in there this time, and he wasn’t able to stop it, and that has been the case in quite a few previous mass shootings.

It seems to me that unless you have a society which doesn’t think that the immediate answer to violence is more violence, there is little or no hope of any change. As Erin Walthen says, “A nation so filled with hate should not be this well armed”; however, this is a nation which is already very well armed and which has the Second Amendment and the bizarre decision in DC. -v- Heller to cope with. 

It is also, however, a nation in which a very sizeable proportion of the population want to see themselves as “a good guy with a gun”, if only to protect themselves and their families. I think there are among them a very significant number who see a gun as a penis substitute, but that is perhaps too controversial. However, that brings me back to Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station post; it may be almost practically correct that the only thing which stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but that is not the whole story – the only thing (aside from fear of the consequences and the occasional act of heroic nonviolent resistance) which stops a bad guy with a gun is a very highly trained, well practiced, responsible and well balanced guy with a gun (and even that sometimes isn’t enough). So limit the ownership of guns to people who are all of those things, and accepting that people will stray from this, make the consequences sufficiently severe to deter as many as possible. And, in conscience, ban automatic and semi-automatic guns completely except for the military (particularly those which can have a bump stock attached…). There is no justification for these in hunting, and they multiply killing capacity immensely.

There, however, I think the States (and Jim) have a problem. America already locks people up for a very long time and in great numbers compared with other developed nations, and from everything I have seen in prisons which are extremely unpleasant environments. If you’re going to get life in a US jail anyhow (and sentences of as little as ten years may well look like life to some people, and not necessarily just those of advanced years) then a bit more for having a gun, or a lot more for killing someone with it, doesn’t work very well as a deterrent. Also, “suicide by cop” begins to look remarkably attractive when the alternative is US jail for a very long time. There are many other reasons for penal and sentencing reform in the States, but this is definitely one.

What I would like, however, is to convince American Christians that Christianity is in it’s very essence a nonviolent religion, and that a good Christian should not be owning or carrying a gun for personal protection, and should at the very least think twice and three times before joining any service such as the police or military which requires you to carry a weapon. In this, I fancy the Quakers and the Mennonites are the ones who have probably got things right in their scriptural interpretations. America is, by the standards of the UK, overwhelmingly Christian. That would be a good start, even if the peculiar attachment of Americans to the right to bear arms affects the rest of their society. You can do this even without amending the constitution again (or even re-interpreting it more sensibly…)

If you’re American, please take this seriously. It’s hard for the rest of us to watch you killing yourselves.

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The System of Satan?

January 30th, 2016

On Friday 22nd January, one of the topics covered in the Global Christian Perspectives webcast, at its new regular time of 10pm UK time (4pm Central Time), was one which the Energion Discussion Network had asked Elgin Hushbeck (my usual sparring partner on GCP) and myself to write contrary blog posts. Elgin’s appeared on the 18th, and mine on the 19th. What follows is an expanded version of my blogpost of the 19th, expanded in the light of the fact that neither Elgin nor myself had seen the other’s post when we wrote our own.

The question asked is “Does Capitalism best express Christian economic values?” which I interpret as meaning free market capitalism, rather than (for instance) the nascent Chinese authoritarian-capitalist model.

So, what passages in scripture best enable us to see what Christian economic values might be? One might start with the account of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2:44-45 “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need”.

Having all things in common would be an expression of the second part of the Great Commandment from Mat. 22:36-40 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Selling their possessions and distributing them to all would seem to flow from the parable of the rich young man in (inter alia) Mark 10:17-31 “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me””. He went on to say “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Also, of course, according to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Many reading this will immediately think that this had to be a short term situation, perhaps having regard to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and the institution of the Kingdom of God on earth, and some will think of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church referred to in 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8 and Rom. 15 and suspect that the Jerusalem church had effectively beggared themselves. I am, however, mindful that Jesus also said (Matt 6:25-34) “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” and “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

If there is a major fault I can see in the Jerusalem church attitude, it is that the evidence is that it shared equally only between its own members. Implementing the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself” however has guidance as to who your neighbour is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which it is clear that your neighbour includes those of another religion and race, and traditional enemies. These days, it should probably be the parable of the Good ISIS insurgent. Help should have been for the whole community, and not just the group of followers of Christ.

But, I hear said, this is just totally impractical, it cannot work. G.K. Chesterton however said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” There have been some decent attempts (generally shorn of explicitly Christian content, for instance the anarchist communal enterprises during the Spanish Civil War), but never a widespread trial. I should underline that a statist controlled economy (which is often seen as the only alternative to unbridled free market capitalism) is not what I think is the nearest to a system Jesus might have approved of. However, something like the Jerusalem church might well be a halfway house to a truly Christian economics.

Let’s turn to free market capitalism. At first sight, a free market looks a wonderful idea. You produce something which someone wants, and you agree a price with them. If someone else sells cheaper than you do, you have to lower your price to compete with them, and without any conscious decision making other than everyone getting the “best buy” and, on the other hand, selling at the “best price”, prices are kept low and competitive.

This is very much the basis on which Elgin suggests that a free market is a magnificent system for ensuring things such as efficiency and cost-effectiveness. To a significant extent, he is right in that. He opposes the free market to a centralised system fixing prices, a “command economy”, and rightly remarks that all experiments with command economies (chiefly in communist states) have been unmitigated failures. However, command economies are not the only alternative to an unregulated free market, as witness the fact that in a recent poll of the ten best countries for doing business, all of them were social democracies rather than fully free market states (and neither the UK nor the USA were on that list).

There are two major problems with free markets from a Christian perspective. The first is in the motivation it assumes on the part of both buyer and seller – the buyer is looking to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, the seller to sell as little as possible for as much as possible. Both are assumed to be working entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is not a Christian value; it ignores the command to love your neighbour as yourself. It can be argued that it is realistic to assume the worst of humanity, and even Christian (given that most Christian denominations hold that mankind is in a fallen condition), but it is not something we can hold up as an ideal situation, as it rests, fundamentally, on greed. However, adopting more Christian principles of exchange might not completely destroy the ability of free markets to regulate prices (and supply) without central control.

The second is that it fails to work in practice except in very limited circumstances. What we actually see in unregulated economies (and in a lot of somewhat regulated ones) is developing monopolies (even on a very small scale you get those – there just is not room for two competing providers of some goods or services in my town, for instance) and, where there isn’t quite a monopoly, a cartel, agreeing not to compete on price. As time goes by without a cartel, one supplier becomes dominant because they can sell a little cheaper (or with a cartel the cartel becomes dominant), and then economies of scale kick in and they become cheaper yet, and you have another monopoly (which is then protected from someone else entering the market by selling at a loss until the new entrant fails, at which point the losses are recouped by raising the price).

On the back of monopolies comes an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands (on the basis of a recent study, looking purely at moveable wealth, half the world’s wealth is currently in the hands of 62 people). As Adam Smith (hardly a poster-boy for liberals and socialists) pointed out (and I link to an article by David Brin discussing this at length), great disparities in wealth destroy the freedom of markets, via the huge disparities of purchasing power they produce.

As a secondary effect, the freedom of the market is compromised severely when less and less people actually have the money (or power) to enter into it, resulting in the removal of the mass decision making which makes the free market work, concentrating the power to make decisions in a very few hands. The result is close to a command economy, with all the abysmal track record that brings. As Brin remarks, in exchange for price setting by 10,000 civil servants, we get price setting by 5,000 golf buddies – and I add to what Brin says, that the man in the street has at least in theory the ability to elect politicians who will do something about the 10,000 civil servants, whereas the golf buddies are not removable except by people with immense wealth to buy controlling interests in the companies they operate.

Free markets are thus demonstrated to be fundamentally unstable; they will eventually cease to be free unless they (or their effects) are regulated.

Another problem kicks in when talking about markets in, for instance, stocks and shares. What governs those prices is more what people think is going to happen to the price in the future than a dispassionate view of how well the underlying company is doing, so they are prone to boom and bust cycles, particularly since automated trading systems started to react to changes in the market more rapidly than human traders ever could.

Turning from markets to capitalism proper, except on a very small scale (without economies of scale), it is not a matter of a single person producing something. Elgin is correct to say that capitalism has produced a higher standard of living for masses of people, and the mechanism is mass production, which demands major investment of equipment to work; this has been provided by mechanisms such as the joint stock company and by the banking system, which together give you capitalism.

I need to pause here to say that I have misgivings about both the joint stock company and the banking system as being in accordance with Christian principles.

The joint stock company allows people to risk only their initial investment through the principle of limited liability; the worst they can fear is the loss of their share value. What that actually does, however, is enable companies to fail to meet their obligations to others, either debts owed or liabilities for damage caused, by just declaring the company insolvent and winding it up. This enables people to support companies which will defraud or cause damage to people without fearing the full consequences.

The banking system lends money at interest, fundamentally. That is something which, for very many years, Christians believed was forbidden by scripture, basing this on Deuteronomy 23:19 “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest”, first prohibiting it at the First Council of Nicea (325). This was the sin of usury (for over a millennium Christians left that practice to Jews, who used the parallel provision permitting interest to be charged to foreigners in Deut. 23:20). I am not convinced that our move away from condemning usury is warranted.

Beyond that, capitalism is a matter of an employer (usually a company) with multiple employees, it is a matter of needing capital from somewhere in order to set up the business; both separate the work of production from the sale of the product. But, I hear, workers contract freely to work for the capitalist, and there is again a free market. The fact that the employer or the provider of capital makes most of the money, and not those who actually produce, is fair because it is a free market.

This is just not the case. A free market demands that both seller and buyer are free from overwhelming need to contract at whatever price the other demands. Except in circumstances of labour shortages (which rarely arise except in the case of people with specialist skills and which the mass production through automation on which the modern capitalist economy depends constantly strives to reduce or eliminate), the employer can employ anyone while the worker typically fears starvation and the gutter and is compelled to accept what the employer is willing to give. This is good free market capitalist economics; it reduces the cost of production for the employer and increases the profit margin.

It is not, however, remotely Christian. The employer is not only failing to love the employee as himself, but is taking advantage of rather than benefiting the poor (for instance by giving them all his money…). In a truly Christian economy, the fear of starvation and the gutter would not be there, because the rich would be queuing up to give the poor money.

Indeed, free market capitalist economics value people only as units of production or units of consumption. The less you pay in wages the better, the more they pay for what they buy (and the more they buy) the better. A Christian economics would value them as people and, I suggest, value them the more if they are poor (hungy,  thirsty or unclothed), a stranger, sick or imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). Capitalist economics, in other words, values only money. If you work for a capitalist enterprise, you are likely to be sacked for giving anything away or for selling it at a lower price than the employers demand; you are forever going to be pushed to produce more at a lower cost and sell more at a higher price. To make more money.  As Gordon Gecko says in “Wall Street”, “Greed is good”.

There lies the problem. Paul said “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and Jesus said “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). The word used for money there is “Mammon”, which Christian theology has traditionally seen as a false god or prince of hell (Gregory of Nyssa, Cyprian and Jerome certainly thought this way; Gregory equated Mammon with Beelzebub).

All this for something which you cannot eat or drink, which you cannot wear, and which has only the value we permit ourselves to be deceived into giving it unless and until it is converted into something real. If you consider that money has real value, think of inflation, and particularly hyper-inflation which has affected some economies in the past. The pound (or dollar) in your pocket is really only worth to you what someone is prepared to give you in exchange for it, and that can vary wildly (if, for instance, someone just doesn’t want to sell you something, or work for what you offer, or just isn’t interested in having more money) or, in hyperinflation, collapse completely. Money, and therefore wealth, is a fiction, given value only by the belief of those who have faith in it. That’ to my mind, sounds very much like a minimalist definition of a god… or, at least, a false god.

In addition, if you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while the lowest level (physiological) can be attended to fairly readily with money in normal circumstances, safety requires more than just money, and having more money does not correlate well (some would argue “at all”) with attaining any of  the higher needs of humanity (“Money can’t buy you love”), though we are deceived into thinking that money gives us security and others are deceived into esteeming us more for “having” more of it.

Indeed, while with most commodities we can readily see that, at best, “enough is as good as a feast”, and consumption of many things in excess can actually be bad for you, having reduced everything to money, i.e. wealth, we have produced a system in which you can never clearly see that you have too much.  In the quest to sell more (and produce more) we have developed marketing and advertising, the chief effects of which have gone beyond the initial aim of letting the buyer know what was available to inducing people to buy what they don’t need, and to pay more for it not because it is intrinsically better, but because it is seen as trendy, or high status.

It is also the case that in every free market capitalist system (and the more so the more nearly that approaches the ideal), the principle of “trickle down economics” (otherwise expressed as “a rising tide lifts all boats”) which benefits the poor because it benefits everyone, does not work unless there is a labour shortage. Marx got a lot of things wrong, in my eyes, but the one thing he got right was that free market capitalism concentrates wealth (and so power and the ability to choose what one does with life) in fewer and fewer hands. “Thus says the LORD:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way. “ (Amos 2:6-7)

So, capitalism gives us a system which results in us valuing each other by the amount of this Satanic fiction we consider each of us to have and concentrating that in fewer and fewer hands. We live in fear of not having it (which is a primary reason why we do not try a truly Christian economics) and are compelled into getting more of it, and letting others have as little of it as possible.

I therefore think that I was entirely justified in a recent Global Christian Perspectives webcast in calling Market Capitalism the “system of Satan”. It is the opposite of a Christian economic system.

The trouble is, just as Jesus observed when he said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), we are stuck with this system. I am myself too consumed with the fear of destitution to go as far as I think I should towards a truly Christian view of economics, and can only chip away at the edges (by, for instance, not buying from companies which I know oppress workers particularly badly, and by paying more than I need to where a seller is plainly poor, as well as the normal charitable imperatives for which there is no justification in Market Capitalism, as well as by seeking to elect politicians who will curb the excesses of the system). The fact that we are stuck with it, absent a level of popular faith I can’t muster in myself, however, should not blind us to its “Satanic” character and the fact that we should aim at something better, or at least at using government (the people acting as a whole) to regulate and moderate its influence.

Free Market Capitalism is not a matter of “best expressing Christian values”, it’s a matter of turning the opposite of Christian values into a belief system which becomes the whole basis for society.

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Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

October 21st, 2015

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life, and I didn’t feel that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

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America and guns: go to rehab.

October 6th, 2015

Dear America,

I find I am again horrified at an episode of mass violence using firearms in the USA, and my prayers go out to those who have been injured or who are mourning family or friends.

The trouble is that word “again”. It seems to be happening every week or so. Surely, by now, the mood must be “enough is enough; we have to do something about this”? Look, we are not all that different from people in the States over here, and I can recall three instances of mass shootings, in 1987 (Hungerford), 1996 (Dunblane) and 2010 (Cumbria). Two of those also involved schools, which I think gives the lie to the idea that the phenomenon in the States targets schools because they tend to be gun free zones. The Hungerford and Dunblane shooters could have chosen almost anywhere with confidence that it would be gun-free, but chose schools anyhow.

Yes, I know we have a significantly smaller population, about a sixth of that in the States. This might mean that we might have expected instead of three shootings in 28 years, about 18 if we had had an equal population.

Not one a week, as it seems is the case with you at present.

“But”, I hear, “We’re a very different country”. I’m not all that convinced by this argument. Certainly there’s a far larger population of people not of British origin which you’ve accumulated over the last 250 years, but we share a language and, frankly, a large amount of our culture (as US domination of English speaking media is huge), and, of course, the bases of our legal systems.

Now, there’s the rub, potentially. We don’t have a written constitution, at least not one which can supersede legislation and see it struck down (we do have a constitution of sorts, but it’s partly in legislation no more protected than any other legislation and partly in longstanding custom – and most of that longstanding custom we exported along with the early settlers).

This article highlights the problem, the Second Amendment. For anyone reading this who does not have it burned into their consciousness already, it reads “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The article I link to quite reasonably asks what contribution is being made to the establishment or maintenance of a “well regulated militia” by the current state of US law, which allows more or less any individual to own a gun, and often to carry it around in public, sometimes even concealed. As far as I can see, there are no militias (except a few self-described groups on the extreme lunatic fringe, many of whom also deny being citizens), let alone well regulated ones.

I could readily have seen, on the basis of the strict wording of the amendment, the limitation of possession of all firearms to people who were members in good standing of a formally constituted militia, with (inter alia) rules as to the abilities of those allowed to bear arms, their character and stability, and their conduct while in that position. This would be a situation rather analagous to that in Switzerland, in which all men (at least for the moment, just men) are called up, do national service and are then members of the reserve – and they hold weapons, which can be denied them for good cause (see the previous sentence). The authors of that article don’t go quite that far. Unfortunately, they probably also underestimate the power of the Supreme Court decision in DC -v- Heller.

Now, I know that a future Supreme Court could in theory overturn this. However, Supreme Courts have been historically reluctant to go entirely against stated previous decisions of the same court, usually looking to distinguish the situation in front of them so that the previous decision can at least arguably still be regarded as correct. That decision includes the words “The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.” This could well be fatal to any future argument that only the possession of arms in furtherance of membership of a militia (and a well-regulated one at that) should be protected.

The court decision also includes the words “The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.”  This, of course, completely negates any suggestion that the class of people (as long as they are male and physically capable) cannot be restricted – even, it would seem, by the requirement that the militia be “well regulated”, something which the court seems to have conveniently forgotten. They also stated  “But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home. ” This was to justify their decision that in particular handguns, possession of which had previously been prohibited in certain circumstances, were legitimate weapons of self defence, giving it a plausible link back to the first (militia) clause of the amendment.

There were a few positive elements – the court was at pains to state that the decision did not permit machine guns, and I think that can colourably be made to include all automatic and semi-automatic weapons (being new weapons not available at the time the amendment was drafted). As did the UK government after Hungerford, I think an immediate blanket ban on the private possession of these is probably not within the Heller decision.

However, it is also interesting to note the Court’s interpretation of “militia” as being all able bodied men. Actually, this was not the way a militia was constituted in the 18th century, either in the fledgling USA (except very briefly immediately prior to the introduction of the amendment) or in the British law previously in force. Militias were volunteer organisations raised by and led by prominent local men; they were entirely capable of (and did) exclude men they did not think of as of good character, and they were organised and had rules – which is what I am confident those drafting the amendment had in mind by using the words “well regulated”. While yes, they did welcome people bringing their own weapons where they had weapons which would be of use in a military action, these were in general not handguns, which were not particularly useful in the kind of military engagement of the day.

The preservation of (as the court saw it) a right of self defence. Much consideration seems to have been given to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was seen as restoring the right of Protestants to bear arms inter alia for their own defence which had been taken away by James II, crucially while allowing Catholics to remain armed. Throughout the history of interpretation of this in England, it has stressed  the wording in the Bill of Rights “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” Note the words “as allowed by law”, which were consistently considered to allow government to restrict the possession and use of arms by individuals and groups which it considered inimical to good order, and also the words “suitable to their conditions”, which was code for “It’s fine for the aristocracy and landed gentry, but you’re in trouble if you’re a peasant”.

Of course, in the UK, Parliament is never bound by any previous Act of Parliament, and the “right” to bear arms has been reduced by stages, particularly following Hungerford and Dunblane, to a very restricted one; non-automatic rifles and shotguns for sporting use only, kept under secure lock and key and owned only by those who get a licence, which is not all that readily come by for anyone not owning significant land; handguns only in licensed gun clubs. That is where a right to bear arms “as allowed by law” has ended up in the UK…

So, while a new Supreme Court might not want to overturn the previous court’s statement of law, it seems to me that they might determine that the court in DC -v- Heller misdirected itself on the facts. Militias were not what they thought they were, and neither was the pre-existing right to bear arms independent of restriction by law. The lack of any mention of “well regulated” is also something which could lead to a finding of self-misdirection, it seems to me.

I do not really see good reason why the USA should not aim at moving towards a similar level of restriction to ours, but a first step would, I think, be an immediate ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Australia has, after all, managed a similar transition, and they too are a recovering frontier nation… This might be possible with a more liberal minded Supreme Court, it might require another amendment to the Constitution – but amendments have been passed before this with rather less concrete evidence of continuing harm to the population. Amendments have been passed removing earlier bad amendments. Don’t tell me this could never happen with the Second Amendment; it hasn’t been tried yet.

An immediate response to this tends to be “this would remove the guns from all the law abiding citizens and leave the criminals free to use them at will”. This is, of course, true, but it is the situation in England (and many other countries), and by and large English criminals do not use guns. The reason is that the penalties for possession and use of a gun are far greater than those for crimes committed without these, and on the whole, our criminals are not completely stupid. That may, of course, not work in the States, given that the penalties for relatively trivial offences (particularly connected with drugs) are draconian – but a revision of US sentencing policy would be no bad thing for a number of other reasons, not least to provide a perceptible difference in tariff. I can also see the thinking running “I’m going to get locked up for life for possession of this kilo of drugs anyhow, so I may as well be armed and shoot a few people to try to avoid capture, because it won’t make any difference”.

I also see very little evidence that an armed citizenry provides any sensible deterrent to criminals. Indeed this article outlines some recent research which demonstrates that more guns means more crime, not less, among other things. This one undermines the unscientific survey which is commonly used as an argument that guns prevent large amounts of crime. It also focuses a little on the number of accidents which occur, often fatally, due to guns in homes.

Just in passing, please don’t way “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Weapons of mass destruction don’t kill people, people using weapons of mass destruction kill people, but we can still get very upset at the concept of mere possession of such weapons. Unless it’s by us, of course. The thing is, the term “mass destruction” highlights the problem – they let you kill a whole load of people more easily.

So do guns.

They also let you kill people at a distance, removing some of the visceral revulsion which most of us feel about killing hand to hand.

So do guns.

Similarly, don’t tell me this is just a mental health problem, unless you’re going to explain to me why people in the States are so much crazier than those anywhere else. Yes, substantial good can be done by a mental health system which identifies threats and acts to manage at risk people, but as that article comments, the mentally ill aren’t a significantly greater threat than the notionally normal (and around one in four will at some point suffer some form of mental illness from depression upward); as it also highlights, if you have someone with this kind of mindset, guns let them do a lot more damage.

Well, there may be an answer or two. Firstly, the version of US culture peddled by TV and movies is a very violent one, in which by and large problems are solved by violence. You can watch whole series of an UK police procedural and never see anyone getting shot; the same cannot be said for the US equivalent, one of which (Chicago PD) is advertised here with the phrase “They have the right to remain violent”. There would seem to be an addiction to what Rene Girard called “the myth of redemptive violence”. This is an “eye for an eye” world at the very least (often glorifying more than just equivalent violence). Girard suggested that a prominent understanding of the crucifixion should be the rejection by God of all such concepts; Jesus is “the last scapegoat”, and no more should be contemplated. Addictions can be treated; I might suggest a communal twelve step programme starting “we are powerless over violence and our lives have become unmanageable”.

Secondly, and connected to that, the States is the one place I know of where the term “gun nut” is of widespread application. Let’s face it, that’s where the term comes from. An Australian comedian has recently commented, rightly I think, that the true reason why gun control is resisted boils down to “F*** off, I like guns”. Why is this? It seems somehow bound up in ideas of masculinity and power; almost all the mass shootings seem to be by men who feel disempowered, and it would seem that guns make them feel powerful again.

I am no more sympathetic to people who want to wave their penis substitutes around in public than I am to those who want to do the same with the real thing.

Both categories should, in my view, be locked up and given intensive therapy until cured. Let’s face it, that’s the attitude we take to someone who says “F*** off, I like crystal meth”.

Consider the path to gun control as the path to rehabilitation, preferably starting with an extended detox. Until that happens, yes, you’re communally addicts, and that is indeed a form of mental illness.

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Eternal conscious bull****

September 28th, 2015

There is a nice piece at Unfundamentalist Christians about hell as “eternal conscious torment”. I agree with it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

The idea of Hell (assuming that Hell is not a mere rhetorical device, or even, perhaps, a metaphor for what an eternity separated from God might feel like – which is something which I might, perhaps, contemplate to be a viable possibility if, firstly, our consciousness, once created, cannot under any circumstances ever be destroyed and, secondly, if God has renounced any coercion to force a change of mind on us, and allows us freely to elect not to turn to Him and, thirdly, if there is any possibility that, given eternity, any consciousness would not so turn) is one which has been orthodox in Christianity for most of its history.

Incidentally, I do not think that the first and third of the provisoes above are correct, although I am reasonably confident that the second is at least largely correct. I say “reasonably confident” and “largely correct” on the basis that my personal history indicates that God will occasionally give the consciousness of even the most recalcitrant (i.e. the 14 years old evangelical atheist Chris) a good kicking to persuade it differently, but does not appear to have got round to doing the same to (for example) Richard Dawkins.

Let’s leave reformed theology on one side for a moment – given its insistence that God determines absolutely who is going to be saved and who damned without any reference to character, circumstances or effort, and therefore just creates humans destined for Hell – and concentrate on the rest of Christianity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned. This, at least, is frequently quoted; I cannot as yet find an accurate reference to it in the Summa, however. Thomas was, no doubt, thinking of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which, taken literally and aside the real point of the parable (which is that some cannot be convinced by whatever evidence you  can conceive of), indicates that the saved in Heaven can see the damned in Hell. 

And that would make Heaven into eternal conscious torment for anyone who had lived their life trying to follow Jesus’ second Great Commandment, that you love your neighbour as yourself. He even went on to point out in the version recorded by Luke, using the parable of the Good Samaritan, that “neighbour” meant anyone, even your traditional enemy. Maybe not physical torment, but certainly mental.

I wonder how St. Thomas could have managed to ignore this absolutely basic tenet of his faith. Could he, I ask, have been basically a sociopath, setting out the rules by which things worked and pointing out that by following these, you would end up in a good place, irrespective of any human feeling (which sociopaths do not experience)? In the system described by him, indeed, success would go to the rational sociopaths – and that makes it look like a system of corporatist free market capitalism to me rather than the radically inclusionary kingdom of God preached by Jesus – and I have been known to describe corporatist free market capitalism as a Satanic system.

Could it have been that Thomas’ famed rationality had taken over to the point at which mere human feeling was far from him? If so, this is not the spirituality of Christianity, it is the spirituality of the Eastern traditions in which freedom from attachment is the highest aspiration, and freedom from attachment does, of course, mean an end to compassion. I will grant that the mystical ways of the East do have a tendency to produce this withdrawal from humanity in service of uninterrupted ecstatic contemplation of union with God. That has, in a way, been dangled before me as a possibility; I do not consider it one to be aspired to unless the rest of humanity can join me there, and that is a long way off, but perhaps Thomas was a mystic and was seduced by that promise himself. I don’t know. I prefer not to think of one of the greatest theologians of all time as a potential sociopath, or even someone prepared in the final instance to abandon his fellow men to agony, but that seems to be where the evidence leads.

Also, of course, the God whose fulness dwelt in Jesus, of whom Jesus was the most perfect expression, could not, would not, set up a system in which those favoured by him could be those who would look upon even the most evil of their fellows and relish their torment endlessly, without any hope of either annihilation or and eventual purgation and return to Him. If that is indeed the system which has been set up, the one responsible for it must be Satan rather than God, and I want nothing to do with him or his works.

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Caring for refugees

September 8th, 2015

My facebook feed is full of Syrian refugees. Ian Everett’s piece of beat poetry runs along the same lines as an article by Giles Fraser. Very different approaches, but the same message – welcome them all.

It wasn’t full of this prior to a picture of a drowned toddler. I’m wondering what it is about this particular picture sparked peoples’ compassion, given that there have been plenty of previous photographs of drowned migrants, some of them assuredly from Syria. I wonder why similar levels of compassion haven’t been sparked by other photos of dead children – Palestinian, for instance, Nigerian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqui… the list could go on for a while.

Thousands of refugees have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and been wholly unwelcome in each of them – well, apart from Turkey, which is currently host to nearly 2 million Syrians anyhow; recently some thousands have been let through Austria to Germany, and Germany has welcomed them with open arms.

Germany? That should produce a bit of cognitive dissonance in a lot of Britons, whose stereotype of Germans emphatically doesn’t include welcoming strangers, particularly if they’re of a slightly darker hue than the Aryan ideal. They don’t have to look back 70 years to find justification for that stereotype, either – Germany has not been a bed of roses for its substantial population of Turkish migrant workers for many years much more recently than that, and it still has a fairly strong xenophobic streak in some of the population.

I do not criticise Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary for lack of  compassion – none of them are rich countries, and Greece, Macedonia and Serbia rank as poor. Listening to interviews with the migrants, they don’t want to stay in those countries anyhow; they don’t see opportunity there, and they’re probably right. Almost universally, they have set their sights on Germany as their promised land.

Austria, however, is not poor. It’s just unwelcoming.

And, frankly, so has been the UK so far. Cameron has just announced that we will take a significant number of refugees, though we’ll take them from the UN camps just outside the Syrian borders, and we’ll take families, rather than single men. I think he has the right attitude apart from the number – 20,000 (and that over 5 years!) isn’t remotely as many as I think we could or should take, particularly compared with Germany’s position – Angela Merkel expects to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. This is probably a first for me, approving of any aspect of any policy which Cameron expresses – and yes, I do ask myself how he will equate a willingness to take even a few thousand Syrian refugees when his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions doesn’t think our current unemployed need to be fed, clothed or housed adequately. Of course, my answer is that we should look after both.

Cameron suggests that we are a Christian nation as reason to do this. Admittedly, we have an established church, and “Church of England” is the default religious designation, but on that I think he’s wrong. A Christian nation wouldn’t have elected him in the first place, given his attitude to the poor, disabled and needy. Under 5% of us attend church on an average Sunday; that doesn’t look like a “Christian nation” to me. However, there is, particularly among the 60% or so who voted for someone else, a residual undercurrent of Christian values, so perhaps he isn’t completely wrong.

Now, I like Giles Fraser’s writing, but I have to take issue with this article. Yes, it is true that ancient Israel were enjoined to treat the sojourner in their land as they would a native, and that they were also enjoined to leave a margin to provide food for the poor (not especially the sojourner), but none of that refers to whether you invite foreigners into your land to sojourn in the first place. On that point, the Old Testament is at best silent – and at worst, it has a very dim view of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Amelekites, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Ammonites – and again, this list could go on substantially. Appropriate action in their cases ranged from extermination of every last member of the nation to merely approving taking them as slaves…

I think that in order to make his case, he needed to go New Testament. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:39) is the start point; the parable of the Good Samaritan goes on to define as your neighbour someone of another nation (and at that one considered an enemy, and a set of dangerous heretics at that), and we may extend that by considering Jesus’ treatment of the Centurion (an officer of an occupying enemy force) or the Syrophonecian woman (a member of a nation which Israel had had a mandate to wipe out) – that last was a lectionary reading for at least some people at the weekend. Our neighbour is anyone, and probably someone different from us – maybe an enemy, maybe someone we are brought up to despise, maybe just one of those people we don’t notice, like (in Biblical times) women or children.

So yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbours, and perhaps especially the drowned toddler.

The snag is, it’s not that simple. The homeless in our own country are also our neighbours, and if we haven’t helped them, why are we thinking of helping someone whose own nearer neighbours haven’t? Isn’t our neighbour supremely the person in need who is actually next to us now?

They’re also not that simple because of something I keep noticing in the pictures of multitudes of migrants, at Calais, at a Budapest station, at the Macedonian border, in boats crossing the Mediterranean. By and large, what I’m seeing isn’t women or children, it’s young men between, maybe, 18 and 35. Where are the women and children, the old? Why are they leaving the more vulnerable members of their families behind? I listen to interviews with them, and too many times, slipped in among the dangers and uncertainties of living in a war-torn society, is the statement that they don’t want to be conscripted to fight themselves (though many of them seem happy to be threatening to border guards or transport drivers). Are we looking at a collection of draft dodgers, and does that mean they aren’t legitimate? (I have a certain amount of sympathy with draft dodgers, as I believe the witness of the Gospels is hugely in favour of non-violence, though for me that might not hold up in the face of armed struggle in my own country – at the least, I’d want to stay and assist as a noncombatant).

I add to that the concern of a former Army intelligence officer with whom I was chatting recently about this; he pointed out that were he an organiser for Al Quaeda or Isis, he’d be slipping some committed fighters in among the refugees, as there would be no easier way to get them into the country to stir up trouble later. I don’t think there’s any chance that this isn’t something which has occurred to those organisers, so it’s almost certainly happening.

That’s where I think that on this occasion, Cameron is perhaps being really far sighted – if we take first orphans and families, we are probably not taking the draft dodger or the undercover terrorist.

But we should be doing far more. We should particularly be doing more in the light of the fact that even were the armed struggle to be resolved tomorrow (in whichever direction and however that were achieved), there seems strong evidence that the origins of the struggle in Syria lie in the fact that the country started being affected by drought around 2006, and by 2011 there were over 1.5 million internally displaced people who could no longer exist farming. It seems likely both that this is the result of climate change and that it is not going to improve in the forseeable future, and therefore Syria has a significant surplus population problem in any event. Neighbouring countries are similarly somewhat affected by the drought, so moving there is not a long term solution.

We should not merely welcome refugees for the duration of the struggle, therefore, we should welcome them as prospective citizens.

 

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