Friday, November 30, 2007
The 8th November 2007 discussion at the Royal Society of Arts, where I spoke alongside David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science, Kings College London and Indarjit Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, in a meeting chaired by Polly Toynbee and convened by the BHA, has been made available as a podcast: Lecture from the RSA and Times websites (34MB)
Thursday, November 29, 2007
"Merely to resist evil with evil by hating those who hate us and seeking to destroy them, is actually no resistance at all. It is active and purposeful collaboration in evil that brings [us] into direct and intimate contact with the same source of evil and hatred which inspires the acts of [our] enemy. It leads in practice to a denial of Christ and to the service of hatred rather than love."
- Thomas Merton
from Passion For Peace
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For many years, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular human rights and solidarity groups have been protesting against the economic and social isolation of the historic city of Bethlehem, by tradition Jesus's birthplace (a number of scholars suggest it was more likely to have been Nazareth). A key issue is the destructive impact of the Separation Wall, which has done little to improved security, but has had the impact of dividing Palestinians from Jews and Palestinians from other Palestinians, and has played a part in the continual impoverishment of vulnerable communities. It is, in effect, a blockade.
This Christmas the UK charity Amos Trust is dramatically highlighting the plight of Bethlehem, which has also seen a significant decrease in the Christian population, by marketing a locally produced olive wood version of the Nativity scene with a (removable) Separation Wall. The idea is to get money to Bethlehem producers of all faiths and none, to celebrate the birth of liberation, and also to encourage awareness of the connection between Christ's birth as an outsider and the processes which lead to 'outsidering' in today's world - and against which the Gospel message of vulnerable hope is directed. There is more here, and you can buy the Christmas Nativity scene is in two sizes from Amos Trust (details here), writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amos Trust has also produced Voices from the Ghetto 2007, a downloadable series of personal stories prayers, meditations and songs on Bethlehem compiled from Amos partners, staff and supporters. It includes the downloadable song They've canceled Christmas in Bethlehem (the Wall must fall).
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
"It is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all."
This gem is admittedly from Homer Simpson, rather than from, say, the first English translation of the only ancient work of Homeric allegory (aside from Porphyry's Cave of the Nymphs) that has come down to us in its entirety - Heraclitus's Homeric Problems.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
As the Anglican church wrestles with whether and how to hold together in the face of its bitter disputations over sexuality, authority and textual interpretation, Rowan Williams continues to hold out for a vision of Christian communion-in-difference as a prize worth struggling for. He is right to do so, and at their recent gathering Inclusive Church spelt out how this involves seeking costly unity rather than cheap unity. Rightly understood it can be more hopeful for a community to argue peaceably than to split forcibly.
The church ought to be a 'contrast society' founded on principles of justice, love, generosity, hospitality, determination, forgiveness and faithfulness, too. But when it patently isn't functioning as such, and when those who talk or act-up a breakaway demand more and more as the price of a highly conditional loyalty, the resulting legitimation of injustice now on the basis of a continually deferred promise of tranquility tomorrow risks confusing ecclesiological principle with deceptive romanticism, substance with flattering rhetoric. Here is a warning about 'cheap unity' we might all heed:
Unity that is dictated by the powerful is not unity. Unity at the cost of the poor and the oppressed, at the cost of the integrity of the gospel, is not unity.
- Allan Boesak (South Africa)
Monday, November 26, 2007
My colleague Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, is debating church schools with John Hall (ex-head of the Church of England Board of Education, now Dean of Westminster) and Jeremy Craddock, Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge, in central London. The meeting takes place on Tuesday 27 November 2007 at 1.05pm, St Mary le Bow Church, Cheapside, London, EC2V 6AU.
As a think tank we have been critical (both theologically and educationally) of selection by religion and discriminatory practices in employment, admission and equalities in faith schools - backing inclusive community education. The Church remains resistant to such agendas. It should be an interesting discussion, and I will be there - although not contributing from the platform.
The Annapolis conference looking toward the components of a comprehensive Israel-Palestine solution begins in Maryland, USA, tomorrow - just beyond the shadow of the White House in Washington DC. It is easy to be cynical about such exercises and it must be admitted that the history of Western-sponsored diplomatic gatherings has not been positive. Even getting the key figures round the table is incredibly tough, with political manoeuvring and suspicion the order of the day. Some also see the event as little more than a ploy by the United States to go on meddling. Neo-con apostle John Bolton gave a verbal Exocet to any simple view on that on BBC Radio 4 this morning. He says that Annapolis should never have been allowed to happen, since it just highlights US impotence - by which he means any willingness to make concessions to other interests and concerns.
Bolton pours cold water on diplomacy (specifically the work of the British, French and Germans on Iran, which he has done his level best to undermine in the media) and appears to believe that the solution to most intractable geopolitical challenges is more bombing. The more rationalisations he tries to offer for this philosophy, the chillingly madder he sounds. To almost everyone but John Bolton, that is. Even the Bush administration shudders when you mention him these days; though apparently BBC researchers think giving him a chance to plug his book unchallenged (he's a great operator, and made mincemeat of his interviewer) is just fine. Go figure. Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, hardly a radical, had to try not to be out-rightly dismissive later on in the same programme.
Meanwhile, a voice of sanity in the immense, complex and troubling questions surrounding the conference comes from Dr Harry Hagopian in Annapolis: Hope or scepticism for Israel-Palestine? I was privileged to get to know Harry a little when I worked for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and had regular contact with the CTBI Middle East Forum. It is good to be in touch again via Ekklesia. Harry is an impressive and committed man, both intellectually and spiritually, and he has a good deal of experience. His website, Epektasis, is well worth checking out. Harry is an international lawyer with a specialism in Conflict Resolution. He promotes the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, as well as being ecumenical, legal and political consultant to the Armenian Apostolic Church and political lobbyist to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
An Armenian from Jerusalem, Harry worked until 2001 as executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He also worked for the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee. During this dual tenure, he was a principal ecumenical negotiator on behalf of the JICC, articulating the Churches’ collective position over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly relating to Oslo and subsequent chapters of political negotiations. With MECC he helped set up humanitarian aid programme for the refugees of Iran after the Gillan earthquake in 1990, and then again for the refugees from Iraq after the first Gulf war of 1991.
See also the Nonviolence pages of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. (With thanks and acknowledgments to them for the image of Jerusalem)
Sunday, November 25, 2007
"The great mystery of God's love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that God loves us... I cannot take people's brokenness away and people cannot take my brokenness away. But how do you live in your brokenness? Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse? The great call of Jesus is to put your brokenness under the blessing."
- Henri J.M. Nouwen
My esteemed colleague, friend and Ekklesia co-director is caught with a Tory parliamentarian, an ex-C of E chieftain and the atheist's rhetorical guru on TV today. Jonathan Bartley debates with Ann Widdecombe MP, Lord George Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury) and Professor Richard Dawkins and his God delusions on BBC1's The Big Questions today at 10.00am. Almost worth missing church for. Yup, Jon does telegenic far better than I could hope to. I do some radio stuff and the (very) odd snatch of TV, but I'm far more comfortable writing, speaking and conferring. If soundbites are an art-form I'm more a graffiti artist than an old master, for sure. Go, Jonathan.
Postscript: Lord Carey of Clifton backed Ekklesia's call for an end to the UK blasphemy law on the programme. It is understood that representations about the issue will now be made to current Archbishop Rowan Williams on the issue.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
The election of Kevin Rudd as the next Australian premier raises interesting issues for Christian engagement in politics, both Down Under and more widely. The new Prime Minister, raised a Catholic and now an Anglican, has identified with the more radical and progressive social tradition within Christianity overall. However he has also affirmed a secular polity, strongly criticised the religious right, and said that the churches' role is to pressure governance in the direction of all-encompassing social justice rather than to adopt narrow or partisan perspectives. But he personally opposes gay marriage.
Nevertheless Rudd has been accused of 'God-bothering' by some secularists and of 'dog-whistling' for religious votes by conservative politicians. Is his stance post-Christendom, or part of what might be called the left-wing of an essentially Christendom outlook? I will be interested to see what Anabaptist and other friends in Australian make of Kevin Rudd. There are interviews with him here (Vortex of vision and a Sydney Morning Herald article: It's time to fight for the true Christian principle of compassion).
His own direct comment on the issue of Christianity and politics on The Monthly last year was as follows: "A Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not prevail. It must nonetheless be argued. And once heard, it must be weighed, together with other arguments from different philosophical traditions, in a fully contestable secular polity. A Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition, should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere. If the churches are barred from participating in the great debates about the values that ultimately underpin our society, our economy and our polity, then we have reached a very strange place indeed." (See the summary, Faith in Politics).
Among the issues he has cited were WorkChoices legislation, climate change, global poverty, therapeutic cloning and asylum seekers.
Friday, November 23, 2007
"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." - Desmond Tutu
"The sea rises, the light falls, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out." - James Baldwin
"Extremists think 'communication' means agreeing with them." - Leo Rosten
(Hat-tip to Anne Aburrow, University of Bath)
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Earlier in the year, Professor Deirdre Good from GTS in New York came over to the UK on a personal visit. While she was here she graciously gave time to a seminar and press briefing on her excellent book Jesus' Family Values. She also joined a session at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace on 'hospitality'. Her reflections about this are a powerful challenge to the way we fix personal and social boundaries in less than humanising ways, and then use them to reason with in a self-justifying direction. Inter alia, her narrative exposition of Jesus' life as resurrected on account of its given unity with a fundamentally unrestricted form of life (God's) gets to the heart of how mature Christian theology understands this term - in contrast to the crude accounts of many believers and sceptics. What we are talking about here is a way, truth and life not limited by the forms we take as normative; life-in-its-fullness made possible by a divine giving which is truly gratuitous because it has no need to take a competitive role within a limited economy of relationships. It is God's unlimited love, however fleetingly experienced, that makes possible our renewed practice of hospitality - in the face of all the forces that conspire to deny it: many of which you can read about regularly in the Daily Mail, sadly. Deirdre writes:
"On the road to Emmaus and in a place that is not his, a homeless, resurrected Jesus moves fluidly between roles of stranger, host and guest. Luke's Jesus offers Westerners the challenge of receiving and giving hospitality 'to go.' In Luke's gospel, journeys characterize and shape ministry; Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for most of the gospel while in Acts, disciples and apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Europe, and eventually to Rome.
"Hospitality facilitates and defines Jesus' journey to Jerusalem; it identifies followers and disciples who listen and extend welcome (Mary and Martha, the mission of the Seventy, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus) and solidifies opposition (some Pharisees and scribes).
"When we relocate the practice of Christian hospitality from who is and who is not welcome in our homes to the recognition that hospitality is offered and received in other places along the way, a different more permeable dynamic opens up. But changing the location of the welcome is only half the solution. Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles.
"In post-biblical tradition, Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality, moves out of the familiarity of his house. He pitches a tent at the crossroads so as to welcome more strangers, according to the Testament of Abraham. Philo says Abraham ran out of his house and begged the strangers who were passing by his home to stay with him because he was so eager to extend hospitality to them.
"Abraham and Jesus confront our restrictive notions of hospitality, encouraging us to think about our human interdependence in giving and receiving hospitality on the way." Full article here.------------
Deirdre Good's blog is called On Not Being A Sausage (Silvanus). The hospitality article has been slightly adapted from one that originally appeared on Episcopal Cafe. The image of the Emmaus Journey accompanying this article is from a very appropriate editorial on Anglicans Online.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Leading Israeli peace activist, Professor Jeff Halper (pictured), from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), arrives in the UK on Thursday 22 November 2007, with Palestinian Salim Shawamreh, who has had his house demolished four times by Israeli bulldozers. The demolitions are claimed to be part of the Israeli state's security operations - but they are unjust, illegal, often arbitrary, and simply stoke up a cycle of violence and hatred.
By contrast, ICAHD bring Israelis and Palestinians together to rebuild homes, as an act both of human solidarity and political resistance to the Occupation. The seeds of peace and reconciliation for two divided peoples are to be found in such painstaking actions, rooted in the soil of social justice, spiritual commitment (Christians, Jews, Muslims and those of no faith - or rather, 'good faith' - come together to support those who are victims of oppression) and political action.
In doing this, of course, they have to encounter disappointment time and again. Some houses are cruelly demolished by the Israeli forces as soon as they are rebuilt. It is desperately sad to see a people who have been the victims of so much persecution, prejudice and bloodshed unable to see how these tactics are not only morally wrong but deeply counter-productive.
Israeli and Palestinian peace and justice activists also encounter bile and opposition in the hardline sections of their own communities - those who want bloody victory, not costly justpeace. In particular, Jewish campaigners are accused of being 'self-hating' and (absurdly) 'anti-Semitic' by zealous Zionists and those who try to say that to be Jewish is necessarily to be politically identified with the policies of the current State of Israel.
They are brave people who deserve our support, solidarity and prayer. ICAHD in the UK can be contacted here. Information on the tour is on this page.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Today, Stephen Green of the peculiar pressure group - more one man and a bandwagon - Christian Voice, is seeking judicial review in the High Court of a Magistrates Court's refusal of his private prosecution against the BBC for broadcasting 'Jerry Springer - The Opera'. Mark Vernon, a previous victim of the law, has written a good article about this anomalous situation.
The bizarre High Court episode has led to renewed calls for the abolition of the UK's archaic and unjust blasphemy law by Liberty, Ekklesia and others. They are surely very near to toppling now - notwithstanding the government's extreme nervousness about anything touching on religion and identity. The problem is, anxiety is a self-fulfilling emotion.
In the C21st, extraordinarily, blasphemous libel claims can still be brought against the publication of any matter that insults, offends, or vilifies Christ or the Christian (principally Established, Anglican) religion - whether the publication intended to be blasphemous or not.
Here's what I had to say in Ekklesia's media release today: "Human rights advocates, including people of faith, have quite rightly campaigned against blasphemy laws in Pakistan and other countries, and having one on the statute in the UK is both an offence and an anachronism. Privileging one religion above other views is indefensible in a democracy, and for Christians there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy. Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all. The Christian message is about the power of self- giving love, not the love of one's own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically."
Liberty is arguing that the offence of blasphemy violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects free speech and that blasphemy should be decriminalised in English law because of its lack of legal certainty (as has been held by the Irish Supreme Court in Corway v Independent Newspapers, 2000).
The truth about church schools Simon Barrow Guardian Comment-is-Free Nov 20 07, 11:00am: When the Church of England's own survey shows widespread dissatisfaction with its schools, it's time to face the facts.
"Taken together with other surveys that show widespread questioning and dissatisfaction among parents and others concerned with schooling, [the Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey, commissioned by the Church of England and published yesterday] signals the need for a much wider debate about community-based inclusive schooling, whether faith schools can contribute to it, and where they cannot, what changes are needed in public policy.
"There are two major blocks on such a debate. First, both government and the church have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The government is desperate in its search for legitimation, popularity among middle-class voters, and mechanisms for service delivery. The Church of England believes (probably wrongly) that church schools will deliver a further generation of adherents and that a stake in educational governance gives it credibility in the face of falling numbers and finance. As the traditional alliance of church and state withers, this is the shape of a wider, emerging "new deal". It needs proper attention and criticism.
"Second, those with a vested interest in faith schools often seek to portray opposition to them as just the bitterness of a small anti-religious minority. The angry rhetoric of some secular groups does not help, as a civil servant observed to me recently. But the issue is that there are many voices not being adequately reflected in the current "debate". For a start the concerns of a majority of parents, plus teaching unions, a leading government adviser, a number of Christian chaplains, Londoners, Jewish rabbis, Hindus, Muslims, Methodists, humanists, Quakers and others who do not share the dominant assumptions of Anglican and Catholic pro-faith schools lobby."Full article here.
Monday, November 19, 2007
This is a contribution to a public lecture meeting at the RSA on 08 November 2007. [Pic: RSA House, 8 Robert Adam Street, WC2: Designed especially for the Society by Robert Adam in the early 1770s, the Georgian façade of the house conceals gems of both contemporary and traditional architecture. (c) RSA]
The feelings against the appointment of a senior evangelical Black church leader to the Commission on Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR) continue to run strong on PinkNews.co.uk - understandably, because of his organisation's stance against homosexuality. I still think that there is opportunity, not just constraint, in all this. But it's going to be tough. I have responded to an accusation that this view amounts to excusing discrimination and mistreatment, on which Desmond Tutu has been rightly outspoken in a BBC broadcast due on 27 November 2007.
"Of course I don't believe in 'the soul'," a friend of mine has commented on a number of occasions recently. What he is talking about is the claim about some disembodied entity which exists distinctly from the neural and physical networks that constitute the body. There can be no denying that this is what a lot of religious people have thought when they used the term too, and certain doctrines of the Catholic church have construed it that way. But, in fact, the best theological thinkers have never bought into this way of dividing up the human person - since persons-in-relation (a key Hebrew, biblical understanding with parallels in modern psychophysiologic / psychosomatic theory) are to be viewed in terms of the whole, rather than the sole. This is part of the burden of Kevin Boyd's article about the theological resonance of recent research from a series of laboratory tests conducted in both England and Switzerland (The body as religious evidence). It is also what I am saying in my recent address on Struggle, surprise and sainthood, published yesterday. The nub of the matter is in the second couple of paragraphs, but I'll provide context for those remarks:
"The Feast of All Souls enables us to locate ourselves in solidarity with all who have died while sustained by the quest for life. In prayer and remembrance, it invites us to experience, in the words of Iona Community founder George McLeod, “the terrifying thinness of the veil that appears to separate time and eternity”. The veil is ruptured again and again as those we have known pass on (yet remain with us), and as the love of God pours into history (yet remains elusive).
"The Letter to the Ephesians sets this out as an invitation to share in the design for life offered to us in Christ. This pattern for living in love, forgiveness and continual renewal is one “whose purpose is everywhere at work”, writes St Paul (or a close follower). He demonstrates this practically by arguing that both Gentiles and Jews must be welcome in God’s household. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has famously expressed it: “Christ, when he was lifted up, did not say ‘I draw some people to myself.’ He said ‘I draw all, all, all!’”
All Souls, indeed. For the soul, as St Augustine declared, and as modern theologians have elaborated, is not a disembodied spirit somehow temporarily trapped within the flesh (as ‘the religious’ suppose). It is, rather, as Leonardo Boff puts it, the whole, embodied person oriented towards the possibility of life rather than the thrall of death; personhood destined for communion rather than isolation.
"This proper theological understanding is the antithesis of body-spirit dualism, the source of many dangerous superstitions – and of the playfulness we see in today’s Hallowe'en, which I think can be understood as a commercialised echo of the way in which human beings tend to confuse God with the gods, and a parade of ghouls with the genuinely sinister forces that have captured the human spirit throughout history: from Nero and Salem right through to Auschwitz, the gulags, Cambodia’s Year Zero, the killing fields of Rwanda, Srebrenica, Israel-Palestine, Dafur and beyond."All Saints and All Souls is about the Gospel’s confrontation with all the manifestations of death, division and fear in our world. It calls us instead to a vision of the unity and fulfilment of the whole of life (past, present and future) in the presence of God."
The real potency of All Saints and All Souls - which some of us marked earlier this month - came home to me powerfully when I spent a short time in Central America, specifically war-torn Nicaragua, in the mid-1980s. This was a time when small Christian communities found themselves caught up in a life-and-death struggle. In places like El Salvador, as squads of government sanctioned killers sought out priests and religious speaking for human rights , for example, Daniel’s strange apocalyptic vision of the powers of destruction and the Psalmist’s thirst for justice (“the Lord… crowns the lowly with victory”, 149.4) resonated in their search for dignity and freedom. The biblical texts were not distant at all, but worryingly close.
This was a time of struggle, of sainthood (in the true meaning of the term – lives of shining example, not props for institutional religion) and of surprise: the incalculable spark of life that bursts forth in the face of all that threatens to extinguish it. At rallies, at funerals and in church services people would hear a litany of those who had been killed and lost. Each was remembered by name, sometimes over a period of half an hour or more. It was enough, you would have thought, to have convinced anyone that those with the guns were invincible. “How long, O Lord?”
Yet the impact was exactly the opposite. After every name of someone who had been slaughtered there would be a single cry: “Presenté!” Present. With us. Still part of the unstoppable surge of life that is God’s presence. It was in moments like this that I understood what the Communion of Saints truly was. Not an odd doctrine, but a living sense that even death cannot divide us from those whose lives continue to herald a new world coming.
[Image: Oscar Romero, archbsihop, killed by the death squads in El Salvador, March 1980]
Sunday, November 18, 2007
"I am neither proud, self–important nor vain – I am an immensely passionate thinker. What irritates me is that some would like to abuse and insult me and others to plague me with distinctions and honours ... it is an agony to have to live in such a way that I have to let them think me mad just to be allowed to think – otherwise a great fuss may be made about me, and I will have to tap my glass and make speeches, loved and honoured by all those who do not think."
- Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), one of the original tortured souls. You've got to love him - well, I have - not in spite of his failings and agonies, but in and through them. As we would all hope to be loved (that is, truly and truthfully), in our saner moments.
Should religious dress and symbols be banned at work? Trying to make workplaces 'religion free' is no solution to human fears about 'difference, says Simon Barrow, reflecting on recent cases of controversy involving religious dress and symbols in schools and companies. (Ekklesia, 19 Nov 2007)
The latest case involves Sarika Watkins-Singh, aged 14, a Sikh pupil at Aberdare Girls’ School, who has refused to remove her kara, one of the five Ks (khalsa) which reminds its wearers to do good. She and her family have been backed in their claim of unreasonable treatment and unlawful exclusion by the non-religious civil rights group Liberty and the Valleys Race Equality Council. Peace campaigner Bruce Kent has also spoken out.
Anna Fairclough, Liberty’s Legal Officer representing the Singhs, said: “The Governing Body of the school have ignored established race and equality protections and shamefully turned a young woman into a pariah by isolating her. Legal precedents established 25 years ago make clear that she should be allowed to wear the kara without being intimidated by the school.”
Back on 8 November 2007 I was pleased to speak at a seminar hosted by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) on the question "Does a modern, plural society require a neutral state?" It was to launch a very useful piece of work by the Humanist Philosophers' Group making the argument for a 'yes' to that one. I find myself largely agreeing with their booklet, which acknowledges the problem with 'neutrality' incidentally. Of course I'd want to supplement what they have to say from a theological perspective, and indeed did so.
My short speech is now up on Ekklesia. A podcast of the event is also due on The Times newspaper website in the near future, I'm told. There were some lively questions, and all told it was a model of constructive discussion on religion and secularity: not ducking tough issues, but seeking ways forward together, rather than simply a stand-off. The RSA blurb was as follows:
A panel of speakers to include David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science, Kings College London, Simon Barrow, Co-Director of Ekklesia and Indarjit Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh organisations , debate a new pamphlet from the British Humanist Association (logo pictured) on The Case for Secularism: a neutral state in an open society. Chaired by Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and broadcaster
Saturday, November 17, 2007
The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, gave a speech called The Temple Address last week, to an audience comprised (among others) of evangelical Christians. Part of his talk was a tradition-based call for tolerance among the religions, and with the non-religious. A huge amount of Jewish teaching and ethical wisdom is, of course, contained in the medium of story-telling. Here is a really good one from Sacks, with a hat-tip to Ruth Gledhill:
'You know that in the middle of our synagogue services we have what we call the reading of the Torah- the reading of a scroll - a section of the Pentateuch and some Rabbis rule that when this is to be read you stand and others rule that when its read you sit. A stranger came to a new community one year in America and went to the local synagogue that Sabbath. It was wonderful- everyone was welcoming and the praying was wonderful until it came to this bit in the middle of the Torah reading of the scrolls.
'To his amazement and horror half the congregation stood, half the congregation sat and they started yelling and screaming at each other. The people that were standing were saying, “ignoramuses, don’t you know when the Torah is being read you have to stand” and the people who were sitting were saying to the ones who were standing, “Heretics! Don’t you know when the Torah is being read you have to sit?” This crazy pandemonium carries on; the reading comes to an end, peace reigns and etcetera. The same thing happens the next week and the week after. Finally, the stranger cannot stand it any longer. The town is currently without a rabbi so he travels to the nearest town where there is a rabbi, a distinguished rabbinical scholar and he is ushered into his presence. An old, wise, grey bearded scholar surrounded by books.
'He says, “Rabbi, I have a question for you. Tell me, when the Torah is being read, do you stand?”
'And the sage stroked his beard and said, “No, that is not the tradition.” So he said, “Well tell me Rabbi, in that case, when the Torah is being read, do you sit?” And the sage shook his head and said, “No, that is not the tradition.” And the man said, “Rabbi, you’ve got to help me here. Because in my Synagogue, half of them stand and half of them sit and they all shout out nasty names to one another.” The Rabbi nodded and he said, “Yeah, that is the tradition.”'That is the tradition, friends, that you and I have to break.'
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The appointment of Joel Edwards (pictured), head of the Evangelical Alliance, to the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission has not exactly thrilled many in the civic arena, because of EA's well-known stances against full public equality for lesbian and gay people - which it sees as undermining the moral position of the majority in its member churches. However, things are not so simple, in my view. I have just written this article (Keep the EHRC door open to promote change) for Pink News online. The background is here, and the full Ekklesia statement is here.
See also: Anti-gay stance distances church from the young (by Tim Nafziger, an Anabaptist evangelical), Who would Jesus discriminate against? ask pro-gay evangelicals, Evangelicals thinking again about sexuality, Faith groups need to embrace equality with enthusiasm, Welcome for evangelical voice on equality commission, Pink News, 9th November 2007, Communities minister fuels debate about churches and public service provision, Bishop designated 'bigot of the year' by gay rights campaign.
I should add that I know Joel a little, from informal senior staff meets between EA and CTBI during my time working for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. I have great personal regard for him, even on the points over which we disagree, and I think it is very sad that he has pretty instantly been dubbed a fundamentalist and a bigot by those who don't know him - and who may have less than clear ideas about fundamentalism, incidentally. That said, I also fully appreciate the concern of my LGBT friends, both inside and outside the Christian community, who are worried that the EHRC agenda for comprehensive equalities should not be 'watered down'. I'm fully with them on that, but I think there are more creative possibilities around than a simple 'for' or 'against' way of looking at things suggests.
The Gospel message is a about a new creation, not a mere repositioning of our existing conflictual instincts.
(Incidentally, my own contribution to the wider church-and-sexuality debate, a booklet called Towards Communion, is still available online. It will be revised and appear as part of a book sometime next year, I hope.)
To shop, or not, or drop - in a phrase. It will all be upon us soon, and it can be very weary. Well, the bit that's not about friends and thankfulness, anyway. A good 'one stop' place for gifts on the web, if you are planning to go down that route, is the Ethical Superstore, and if you access it via this link, a small cut helps to support Ekklesia too. Our annual budget for everything (including the expenses+ for the two staff), is less than the salary of one person in most NGOs, so we're living lean. This is a way you can help without really noticing it, if you feel so inclined.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Following Rowan Williams' comments about the Afghan and Iraq conflicts in the light of Just War theory, I made a response on behalf of Ekklesia yesterday, drawing attention to the limits of that particular paradigm and the opportunity for steps in the direction of "creative nonviolence". This relates to a book I have been writing which is due in Spring next year, from Darton, Longman and Todd: Threatened With Resurrection: The Difficult Peace of Christ (2008).
The initial publisher's blurb says: "Threatened With Resurrection examines the traditional stand-off between ‘just-war’ theory and pacifism, and offers a radical alternative rooted in the Gospel. Simon Barrow explains why saying no to ‘war in God's name’ is a serious threat to those (both religious and non-religious) who persist in justifying the use of political violence. He presents a serious and vividly illustrated case for a major shift in mainstream Christian understanding — one which signals fresh hope for all those who have come to see in religion the problem not the solution." Due Mar 2008. ISBN: 9780232527247 (2008) Full cover image (pop-up). 144pp. £11.95 [Also by me, from Metanoia - plus this, on theological education]
Sunday, November 11, 2007
"Very often people object that nonviolence seems to imply passive acceptance of injustice and evil and therefore that it is a kind of cooperation with evil. Not at all. The genuine concept of nonviolence implies not only active and effective resistance to evil but in fact a more effective resistance... But the resistance which is taught in the Gospel is aimed not at the evil-doer, but at evil in its source."
- Thomas Merton, from Passion For Peace
Saturday, November 10, 2007
As we approach Remembrance Day (11 November), I can't but recall that last year Ekklesia inadvertently found itself at the centre of a media storm. Our crime? Suggesting that churches might like to make White as well as Red Poppies available. This was because, we argued, working for alternatives to war is as important and respectful as recalling those who died in it. We also questioned some of the narratives of victory and blood sacrifice which often accompany these events, additionally pointing out that from a Christian perspective violence is not salvific - rather, God's absorrption and defeat of it as embodied in the Passion is. We were slightly taken aback by the storm these points created, in the secular and religious press respectively. And of course we were misrepresented as calling for the replacement of red poppies; something we never said. This year we have kept a lower profile, but my colleague Jonathan Bartley has been doing some interviews on the political nature of remembrance, and we have continued to encourage the use of white poppies, also supporting an important new resource from the Movement for the Abolition of War - with a foreword from a general, incidentally, lest it be said that principled nonviolence has to be sectarian or self-righteous. The MAW collection brings remembrance and peacemaking together. It includes readings and reflections on issues of war, conflict and peace, alongside prayers, liturgies, poems, hymns and songs. Since 1933 people have also worn White Poppies alongside (as I do), or as an alternative to, Red ones, to symbolise their commitment to 'no more war'. All the money raised goes toward peace education.
Friday, November 09, 2007
This is adopted from the latest issue of the new weekly Ekklesia bulletin, which included a focus on The Economist's special 18-page report. Inter alia I observed:
There are five elements to the case that Ekklesia puts about religion and politics: First, faith communities revolve around the existence of bodies (like churches and their associated institutions) which are public and inescapably political - they deal in power, one way or another.
Second, there are domineering and liberatory forms of religion, and dominating and liberatory forms of politics (and much in between). The issue is therefore not whether something monolithic called 'religion' should or should not be associated with something monolithic called 'politics', but rather what kind of religion in relation to what kind of politics?
Third, the encounter between Christianity (specifically) and politics has been dominated by the assumptions of Christendom about the convenient alliance of different kinds of power. But there is actually a deep challenge to this kind of collusion built into the heart of Christianity, especially in its dissenting traditions, allied to sources of pluralism in biblical and other sources. These can and should be used to reconstruct the religion-politics agenda around witness (good example and civic action) rather than control (seeking self-interested power) in post-Christendom.
Fourth, we need state forms which are mediating and which are open to challenge and change in terms of fairness and justice to all (irrespective of religion).
Fifth, there are challenges for secular modernity as well as religious modernity in all of this - as LSE professor John Gray has pointed out, for example, in his controversial book Al-Qaeda And What It Means to Be Modern (Faber and Faber, revised paperback edition April 2007)).
Central to all this is the development of civil society as arena for cooperation, rather than just politics as a set of 'wars of position'. It is in civil society that post-Christendom Christianity can have a public role which does not require privilege, but rather seeks to oppose privilege on theological as well as plural grounds. Similar arguments can be made about, from within, other religious traditions.
A vigorous debate about the ethics of public roles is needed in intra- as well as inter-community exchanges, involving different philosophies, both 'religious' and 'secular' (the boundaries are again much more porous than the predominant stereotypes suggest).
The debate about religion and politics across a range of different contexts and in relation to universal aspirations (human rights, and so on) is not settled and is nowhere near concluded. In fact, contrary to the dogmatists of both religion and secularism, it is only just beginning in any meaningful sense. And this is happening in a global context which, we would be foolish not to recognise, contains very dangerous features, as well as seeds of hope that badly need watering.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
This from a piece I wrote yesterday for the ourKingdom conversation on the future of the United Kingdom, a project of the excellent OpenDemocracy (with thanks to Anthony Barnett).
Like Polly Toynbee, I would be delighted to see the government re-think its policy on faith schools – and specifically the iniquity of selection on grounds of religion (or the lack of it).
But while I wish Polly well in her search for a secularist and humanist equivalent of “Hallelujah!” it’s worth pointing out that critics of faith schools are not just to be numbered from those who have problems with religion more generally. We will not get rid of selection by faith without support from the faiths, and there is plenty of it. Anglican chaplains, Jewish rabbis, [the] Christian think-tank Ekklesia – we are all part of the huge public concern for fair access to schooling, irrespective of belief. Read the rest of the article, and responses, here.
Monday, November 05, 2007
Sunday, November 04, 2007
'Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self', the second lecture in the Autumn education programme offered at St Martin-in-the Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, London on 30 October 2007, is another fine piece of work by theologian James Alison. A full transcript has just gone up on his website. One key component is an exposition, in Girardian terms, of Matthew 5. 43-48 in its wider Christian and Jewish setting - You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Alison writes: "[I]t is perfectly normal for the culture in which we live, and not just modern culture, but human culture altogether, to speak through our minds and our texts such that they, minds and texts, wedded together, become guarantors of reciprocity, and we are confirmed in our assumptions that we should do good to those who do good to us, and take revenge on those who do evil to us. It is this normal human cultural way of living out reciprocity which Jesus is pointing to. He knows that we are reciprocally-formed animals; he seems to understand that we are ourselves radically imitative creatures who are very seriously dependent on what others do to us, for what we do.
"Jesus is offering a contrast between this way of being, this pattern of desire which runs us, and how God desires. God, he says, causes ‘the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust’. And our typical reading of this is as if Jesus were saying that God is somehow indifferent, in that removed, detached sense which we normally give to the word “indifferent”... Far from it! The sort of “indifference” about which Jesus is talking could not be more removed from that sort of apathetic detachment. Jesus is making a point about a pattern of desire which is not in any way at all run by what the other is doing to it, is not in reaction in any way at all, but is purely creative, dynamic, outward going, and able to bring things into being and flourishing. If the “social other” tends to teach us a pattern of desire such that what is normal is reciprocity, which of course includes retaliation, then Jesus presents God as what I call “the other Other”, one who is entirely outside any being moved, pushed, offended, any retaliation of any sort at all. On the contrary, God is able to be towards each one of us without ever being over-against any one of us. God is in no sort of rivalry at all with any one of us, is not part of the same order of being as us, which is how God can create and move us without displacing us. Whereas we who are on the same level as each other can only move each other by displacing each other."
See also: titles from and about Rene Girard on the Ekklesia online bookshop.
This evening Channel 4 TV has been showing a well argued documentary entitled Did Barry George Kill Jill Dando? It follows a similar exploration of the tragic murder case on BBC1, and is broadcast on the eve of a further investigation by the Court of Appeal. It is a case I have been concerned about for some time, and which I commented on a few days after the original conviction on 2 July 2001 (below). Since then, the evidential inconsistencies and doubts have grown even stronger, and George's sister Michelle Diskin (pictured) has maintained a persistent, intelligent and dignified campaign to secure justice for her brother: a sad, vulnerable and broken man, but almost certainly not the murderer of a TV celebrity. Crucially, the Court will be told by experts tomorrow that the one microscopic piece of forensic evidence - a gunshot particle allegedly in the pocket of Barry George's coat - is invalid.
Independent, The (London), Jul 5, 2001 by Simon Barrow
Sir: Deborah Orr ("Why was this unstable and messed-up man left largely to fend for himself?", 3 July 2001) is quite right to say that the finding against Barry George is deeply unsatisfactory. There can be nothing more damaging to the credibility of British justice than the conviction of a man deemed unfit on mental and physical grounds to give testimony through little more than circumstantial speculation.
Just two of a whole array of parades achieved unaided identification, there were no positive witnesses to the key event, the murder weapon is missing, there is no motive, and the forensic evidence is so weak that it stretches the crucial notion of "reasonable doubt" beyond all meaning. On such thin grounds a majority of the jury apparently came to believe that a fantasist of limited faculties executed a killing of great sophistication. In time to come we will surely conclude that this was not a legal verdict, it was a media-fuelled travesty.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Friday, November 02, 2007
The Economist has today published a special feature on 'religion in public life'. An initial survey suggests that it contains some very interesting and useful material, but is rather predictably over-reliant on the headline approaches of Philip Jenkins, John Neuhaus, Niall Fergusson, the aura of the sterile 'clash of civilizations' framework and the 'superstition versus modernity' non-debate.
Missing, as far as I can see, are fresh perspectives looking at the changing role and importance of civil society, growing sources of pluralism within communities of religious (and other) commitment, the post-Christendom analysis, John Gray's treatise on terror and modernity, alternative discourses on theopolitics, and 'the clash of barbarisms' counter-position to Huntingdon lite and the neocons - all of which introduce helpful distinctions missing from what have become the standard sociological tropes. As The Economist special section leading article ('In God's Name') acknowledges, the mainstream theorists got it wrong ten years ago, and they could well be in the process of doing so again.
Moreover, if the 'wars of religion' analogy is going to be deployed, it would be helpful to revisit what the original ones were about in some greater depth (mostly not religion, actually, but the struggle for the rise of the modern state), via someone like William T. Cavanaugh. I'll say more about that in due course.
I have also offered some further initial thoughts about 'religion' in public life on Ekklesia. Meanwhile, here's a flavour from The Economist:
Philip Jenkins, one of America's best scholars of religion, claims that when historians look back at this century, they will probably see religion as “the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood and, of course, conflicts and wars.” If the first seven years are anything to go by, Mr Jenkins may well turn out to be right.
What has changed? The main protagonists are oddly unhelpful in providing explanations. Believers usually produce some version of “you can't repress the truth for ever.” Sociologists point out that outside western Europe most people have always been religious. Peter Berger, the dean of the subject, chides journalists for investigating the religious rule, not the secular exception: “Rather than studying American evangelicals and Islamic mullahs, you should look at Swedes and New England college professors.”
Yet even if underlying piety has not changed that much, religion's role in public life plainly has. Only ten years ago, most academics and politicians would have dismissed Mr Jenkins's claim about religion being central to politics as weird.Read the whole feature here.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
"[I]n putting forward an understanding of human physiology as crucial to (rather than incidental to or separate from) the construction of self, Paul Eakin's study (How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves) and [recent] laboratory experiments intersect with the agenda of modern theology. As Eakin asks, "Are bodies something that we have or something that we are?" The development of robust theologies of the body, theologies predicated on the notion of humans as embodied beings and bodies as something we "are," is a thriving enterprise within theological circles these days. Such an endeavour inevitably touches upon issues of sexuality, of limitation, but also on what it means to proclaim religious truths as a finite and bounded being.
"The disembodied position, that which views the body as something that we merely have, can too easily lead to theological positions that gloss over the tensions, attractions, and repulsions that come with lived human experience. The failure of such theological systems to take seriously the notion of embodiment leads not only to theological impoverishment, but to the dangerous potential for a variety of abuses. These include the potential to abuse one's own body, but also the potential to fail to honor the value and worth of the body of the other. Violence is empowered by systems of thought that refuse to acknowledge, with integrity, the rights of other bodies.
"Additionally, the numerous instances of clergy sexual misconduct can be read in light of this deficiency, as can high rates of clergy obesity and substance abuse. A disembodied theology has nothing to say on these issues, so they are often ignored until they reach crisis status. Likewise, a disembodied theology is of little utility in thinking about human sexuality and sexual ethics. The intensity of intra-denominational conflict over sexuality implies that the Christian churches have too long been absent from meaningful participation in such conversations. I am encouraged by some recent work on the subject, and hope that the dialogue continues to expand. As medical science continues to explore the wonder of the human body, we must ensure that our theological thinking keeps pace."
(c) From Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The author, Kevin Boyd, is Director of Field Education and Church Relations at the School.