Gun control

I can’t help weighing in on the gun control arguments which afflict our American cousins occasionally, and this is possibly the best set of counter-arguments for the usual arguments against gun control I’ve seen.

I am, incidentally, very glad to live in a country with strict gun control laws. If ours were relaxed to US levels, I would be scared. I wouldn’t be particularly scared that an armed robber would appear and demand property from me at gun point (though if they did, I’d give them what they wanted and hope not to be shot, rather than resist – no property is worth a life, even my own), but, looking at my neighbours, I would be terrified that one of them would shoot me (or a member of my family or a friend) by mistake. I know very few people who I would trust to go around armed with a gun, and almost all of them are in the armed services or the police. There are a few honorable exceptions – a farmer or two, and a couple of enthusiasts for target shooting. All of those keep their weapons very securely, and none of them would be able to extract them from secure storage fast enough to combat (say) a home invasion. All of them would pass any tests one might consider sensible for gun owners – psychological stability, for instance, and both initial and continuing training.

Even those I’d frankly prefer not to be armed in a situation where there was an active shooter in a public place. I wouldn’t trust their training enough…


Everything is emergent…

As my last post indicated, I’ve just been reading “All Things in Common”, and have been seriously persuaded that communism (not the State-centered kind, but the informal kind which obtains among friends) is the way Christians should manage their economic relationships. I’ve also followed a friend’s recommendation and viewed the video of Rob Bell’s 2016 “Everything is Spiritual” talk.

Rob puts forward a compelling view in which, in essence, what we refer to as the “Spiritual” or as “God” is, at least potentially, an emergent phenomenon. Elementary particles group together and become atoms (and display different behaviours), atoms group together and become molecules (and display different behaviours), molecules group together and become cells (and display different behaviours), cells group together and become organisms (and display different behaviours), and eventually you get consciousness – which displays another set of rules entirely. What happens when you group together conscious organisms? Well, he suggests that then you get a next level of behaviour, and that might be what we refer to as “spiritual”.

Rob isn’t the only person to have come up with that idea. I blogged a while ago about Nancy Abrams book “A god that could be real”, which uses the same concept. It does, indeed, stand to reason that a higher level grouping is going to display a different set of behaviours, and (in the usual way of emergent phenomena) one which cannot be predicted from looking at just a large collection of units of things from the next level down.

The thing is, we also know something about how groups of people behave, and it isn’t always an advance on what individual human beings do. Mob psychology, for instance, is something far nastier than you might predict from looking at the individuals who form the mob – and, indeed, something nastier than they would have thought would happen when they became involved with it. There is a famous definition of a committee as “an animal with six or more legs and no brain”; groups of people sometimes look more stupid than the individuals who comprise them, in other words (and that goes for mobs, too). My worry is that what emerges from a collection of humans might be more vicious and more stupid than any of the individuals composing it. Indeed, the result might look a little like some of the Old Testament pictures of God, or the God concept which gives rise to the idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

[By the way, dear reader, if you happen to belong to the conservative/evangelical wing of Christianity, I am not suggesting that God is actually stupid or vicious, merely that some of his past followers have seen God in a way which inevitably leads to that conclusion, and have written down their understanding – though, as some of that is now scripture and some is doctrinally ingrained in much of Protestantism, that might not decrease your unease…]

If, however, I put together the overwhelming ethos of mutual care which Montero suggests is at least a main message of Jesus (if not the main message), things look a little different. Evolutionary biology has shown us that while competition between individuals tends to select the most able individuals, where there is competition between groups, the groups which perform best are those in which the members cooperate the most. This is actually the major reason why a hairless ape ill suited for being an apex predator (namely humanity) has become, collectively, the most fearsome apex predator on the planet; we cooperate with each other.

If we are moved mostly by a spirit of cooperation and mutual care, therefore, any emergent phenomenon arising out of humanity in bulk may not be more stupid and vicious, it may actually be something more intelligent and more compassionate than we can be individually. You can see elements of this in the phenomenon which makes “ask the audience” a better strategy than “phone a friend”; as long as a group is reasonably well informed, the group will deliver, on average, a better answer than any individual member.

In my dim and distant childhood, I can recall my parents saying that we were on this planet to help others, and my response tended to be “If I am here to help others, what are they here for?” (my parents were pretty much Sermon on the Mount Christians, and I was a precocious little toerag). Emergence provides the answer – it isn’t a matter of a chain of one helping another with eventual circularity; if we cooperate, the purpose will emerge from the whole group. As Rob suggests, we will be like the limbs and organs of a greater whole (the Church as the body of Christ), and “what are they here for?” becomes something which is above our pay grade – but something which will emerge. Something looking a lot like the Kingdom of God, perhaps?

And what of the situation if we do not adopt Jesus’ prescription for humanity? We will then, I think, be contributing to the System of Satan. A brood of vipers, in fact…

All things in common…

I’ve been reading “All Things in Common” by Roman Montero recently, and have changed my mind as a result. (I can’t think of a better endorsement of a book!).

Not about whether following the economic prescriptions of Jesus would result in an effectively communist society; the author there merely confirms what I have come (reluctantly) to believe, that to follow Jesus’ instructions fully would mean effectively communism; holding what you actually possessed for the benefit of the community at large, if necessary selling it and providing for the poor and if not, sharing the property itself or its produce with others without preference between yourself and them, or between them – and that “the community” and “others” there means the widest possible interpretation; no-one, irrespective of whether they are of your family or another, of your race or another, of your ethnicity or another, of your nationality or another, of your sexual orientation or another, of your socioeconomic class or another or even of your religion or another should be excluded.

No, the point on which I have changed my mind is the question of whether the early church practiced this for an extended period. We know from Acts 2 and Acts 4 that this definitely was practiced, notably by the early Jerusalem church. but I have tended to take the view, widespread among scholars (including, as Montero points out, such heavyweights as James Dunn and John Dominic Crossan) that this was a fairly short-lived experiment. After all, from our 20th-21st century viewpoint, it fails miserably to conform to our indoctrination, which tells us that anything other than free-market capitalism will fail, and communism will fail quicker and more spectacularly than other deviations from the gospel of Hayek and Friedman. I have blogged in the past suggesting that Paul’s collection on behalf of the Jerusalem Church was evidence that the experiment had not worked, and that they therefore needed bailing out, and urged that we follow Jesus’ commands despite their impracticality. After all, I’ve argued, this pacifist business is pretty impractical, but nonetheless Christians through the ages have considered it at least counsel of excellence, and some denominations (for example Mennonites and Quakers) have actually followed the route of non-violence fairly completely.

The thing is, Montero shows pretty conclusively from a study of a large body of material up to and including the fourth century that actually, it was not just the first-century Jerusalem church doing a short-lived (and failed) experiment, this was a characteristic of Christian communities which was widespread through the Roman Empire, and it was still going strong in the Fourth Century, some three hundred years later. He also picks up a lot of refererences in Paul and the other writers of epistles to indicate that this was not a set of commands of Jesus which were already being subverted by his first and second century followers, but something which can legitimately be regarded as a general New Testament viewpoint.

And, of course, clear commandments from Jesus to his followers.

So we should all become communist…

Yes, I recoiled at that too. However, Montero makes the excellent point that what Jesus (and the other NT writers) were advocating was not at all State control of all property, and was not a centralised command economy, so it was not communism as it has typically been put into force in (for instance) the Soviet Union or China. It’s the kind of communism where you freely lend stuff to a friend, or give your neighbour a cup of sugar when they ask for it, without running an account. The kind where you buy a beer for someone without there being an obligation on them to buy you one in return (nor an implicit acceptance that they are of greater status than you because they are providing for you).

But it is also the kind in which, if you have a homeless person in your town and you have accommodation, you provide it without asking for rent, and where if you find someone hungry, you buy them a meal or a trolley of groceries, or invite them round for a meal. And, if the system is working well (as it seems from the accounts Montero has consulted it did for at least three centuries), there will be no homeless and no hungry people in your town, because they will all be being provided for by you and your other Christian neighbours. Or Islamic ones, or Jewish ones, or those of any other faith tradition which follows Jesus without necessarily thinking of it in those terms.

If you love him, follow his commandments…

Conspiracy against the public

So there’s a cheater’s version of monopoly now?

I’m remembering many conversations with my libertarian opposite number on GCP, in which he stressed the inadequacy of planned economies as opposed to free market competition, being inherently inefficient and having a strong tendency to grow without necessarily producing any benefit – and, in conscience, I can’t really argue too much with that. Governments are very large organisations, have far too much administrative superstructure, and are generally extremely bad at forward planning (as, indeed, it seems economists mostly are).

The thing is, it now seems absolutely obvious that if you leave a free market to operate without regulation, it will produce bigger and bigger commercial concerns which will become either cartels or monopolies, and at that point you might as well have governments running things, as all the diseconomies of huge scale will be there, plus the lack of incentive to innovate (you just buy out the competition) and the lack of the competitive mechanism producing efficiency without actual planning. You will also have an organisation which is purely self-interested, even in theory, which at least democratic governments are not supposed to be. I’m thinking of the history of Microsoft here – it has never produced the best software, but it has exploited its near-monopoly (initially aided and abetted by IBM) and it’s vastly greater purchasing power to buy up anything which might pose a threat to it, with only a very few exceptions. It will probably continue to produce software which we curse at but can’t do without ad infinitum, and better software will either be bought up and used by Microsoft or bought up and conveniently forgotten about.

The second avenue is probably the predominant one in the more traditional industries, and I have particularly in mind energy. Oil and coal have, in the past, been vast industries, and still retain commanding power in the marketplace; the only way newer technologies (solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal) have been able to make a dent in the effective energy monopoly is by government incentives. Curiously, considering the criticism of command economies, oil and coal have been less farsighted than have governments; it is clear even without taking into account externalities (pollution, notably) that exponentially increasing extraction of limited fossil fuels is going to result in their exhaustion (the only real question is how long that will take); governments are, in some cases, willing to take action to provide against that eventuality, while big oil and big coal have not been. Granted, it is climate change which has been the really major driver there; big oil and big coal have, however, not sought to respond to that (it is, after all, an externality not reflected in their balance sheets) and, in fact, to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus and, in some cases, buy governments to stop them taking action – something which I am confident has happened in the case of the current US administration.

Let’s face it, if you’ve built hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane, the last thing you want is a better hotel on The Angel Islington…

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”.

Freelance monotheists

Doug Padgitt has posted an excellent discussion featuring himself, Barry Taylor and Ani Zonneveld. Doug and Barry I’ve heard many times, Ani is a liberal Muslim (technically a female Imam), and is a new voice to me.

The explanation of various aspects of Islam which do not tend to get much coverage these days – the tradition of caring for other members of society (which was seen in a major way a couple of years ago when the North of England was hit by flooding in many places, and the most conspicuous non-governmental aid came from Muslim communities) and the insistence on there being “no compulsion in religion” (a literal quotation from the Qu’ran) – was interesting, and very much worth sharing. I was reminded of it when, during the trial of the right-wing terrorist who drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers last year, it was remarked that the Imam of that mosque had protected the perpetrator from an understandably angry crowd, and I thought first “How Christian of him” – but then corrected myself, because what I should have thought is “How Islamic of him”.

Some years ago I was initially somewhat taken aback when, in an internet discussion, I was described as being “a good Muslim” by someone who knew that I was a Christian, or at least an aspiring Christian for some value of that term. The discussion had ranged over a number of topics, religious freedom and “social gospel” being two of them, but what prompted the comment was my writing about the principle of acceptance, working from Twelve Step principles (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…).

That is, however, the core of Islam, “al-Islam” usually being translated as “submission”, but which could just as well translate as “acceptance”. After the brief period of surprise, I was flattered. I have a lot of commonality with Karen Armstrong (an excellent writer, particularly on the intersections between the three main “religions of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), who these days describes herself as a “freelance monotheist”. From all I know of Judaism and Islam, I could readily fit myself into, say, Reform Judaism or Liberal Islam (or the Sufi tradition). However, my upbringing was in Christianity, and that is the language of religious expression with which I am comfortable and in which I was steeped at an early age, so that is the logical place for me to be (the Dalai Lama would agree – he seems fond of telling people from other traditions who come to him and talk of converting to Buddhism that they should first go and become the best practitioner of the system they were raised in).

That illustrates the one point on which I have a major disagreement with a point raised by Doug – he suggested that whereas you are born into Islam (in most cases), Christianity is something which you elect. Doug comes from the evangelical tradition, of course, and fundamental to that tradition is the need to be converted (even if, as I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals, that is from, for instance “Anglican” – a position which grates horribly with me, as I regard “Anglican” as already Christian, just as I do the other 40,000 or so Christian denominations). Maybe, indeed, for him there is far more choice – most of those 40,000 are Protestant denominations, and people shift between those with considerable ease. That isn’t all that surprising, as some of them are separated only by some point of abstruse doctrine which doesn’t actually concern most people at all. There are, however, a number of Christian denominations which are much more like Islam (or Judaism) in that you are born into them and are, in some way, that denomination forever, even if you lose all faith, even if you become an evangelical atheist. Catholicism is the obvious one – once christened, you are either a Catholic or a lasped Catholic. The Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Latter Day Saints seem to have the same tendency, and I suspect that the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christian churches are similar, although I have little to no experience of them.

And, despite the fact that I was brought up Methodist and am now Anglican (displaying the kind of shift Doug would be very familiar with), I am also working from the fact that I was born into Christianity, into a Christian culture, and even if I were to start self-identifying as, say, Muslim or Buddhist (Jewish would be more difficult), I am still going to have at least a degree of Christian identity burned into my subconscious, if not my conscious mind. Even though the culture I live in has moved a long way from where it was in my youth, when some form of Christian identity was the norm, to one where a sizeable majority of people self-identify as atheist, agnostic or just “none”, it is still a Christian culture in very many ways.

I’m reminded of the story told by Rabbi Lionel Blue (and which I’ve heard told by an atheist as well), of a visit to Northern Ireland, when he was asked if he was a Protestant or a Catholic. He answered “I’m a Jew”. There was a pause, and then came the question “But are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?”.

You can’t escape your cultural matrix entirely…