Tuesday, October 30, 2007

HOSPITALITY NOT HOSTILITY

"To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of the people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we work to change things." - Joan Chittister (nun, writer on spirituality, peace and justice activist)
A DEFORMED MIGRATION 'DEBATE'

Ekklesia media comment (with additional annotated links and resources): The government's foreign labour statistics gaffe does not justify the apocalyptic tones of the current debate about migration, which is about people and development, not numbers and panic, says the religion and society think-tank Eklesia.

Analysts have pointed out that the revised government figures indicate that foreign labour amounts to 7 or 8 per cent of the 29 million total labour force, and that a good proportion of those concerned are married to British citizens, or are from countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Commonwealth.

"Politicians will go to endless lengths to deny it, but the agitation about migration, which in terms of labour has generated some £6 billion for the UK, is about black and Eastern European people coming into Britain. They say it is 'sensitive' because they know it is about racism and prejudice, as well as global economic trends exacerbated by policies endorsed by the main Western governments," commented Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia.

"Migration has been increasing worldwide due to globalization, the impact of vast inequalities, war and conflict, human rights abuses, people's search for a stable and prosperous life, a huge expansion of cross-border trade and investment, EU labour shortages, falling costs of transportation and communication, environmental degradation, and other international and regional factors", noted Barrow.

"A sane debate would be about these issues, not knee-jerk discriminatory policies on marriage, the government's decision to close the door against Bulgarians and Romanians, or the opposition's projecting net migration ten years ahead without proper regard for flux," he added.

Ekklesia points to the poineering work of places like the Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty (DRC) at the University of Sussex, which aims "to promote new policy approaches that will help to maximize the potential benefits of migration for poor people, whilst minimizing its risks and costs".

See also:
Politics and prejudice on migration.
Realism on the migration debate.
The dynamics of migrant labour (South Lincolnshire example).
Churches Rural group (on mistreatment of foreign workers).
Trades union international campaigns.

Data and information:
Development Research Centre
on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty.
Migration Policy Institute - data.
International Organization for Migration
(inter-governmental).


Monday, October 29, 2007

MYSTERIES TO BE LOVED

That phrase was T. S. Eliot's famous poetic description of human beings in a world increasingly shaped by understandings and metaphors uncritically (and usually unhelpfully) derived from material, commercial and mechanical processes. It is the approach that Thomas Merton (pictured) developed theologically in his exchange of letters with the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, including this section on enemy love (which picks up the discussion of yesterday's quotation). Everything in my being wants to render this in inclusive language, but I will leave it as it was scribed in a different era, a couple of references to God apart.

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal ‘law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him . . . and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is [God] first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is [God] who ’saves [Godself]’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is [God's] image in our enemy.”

See also Jim Forest's essay, Meeting Thomas Merton, in which this quotation also appears. And, of course, the resources of The Thomas Merton Center and International Society.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

ADVICE TO A COMBATANT

"How do we learn to love our enemies? By seeing them as siblings who are tempted as we are, and attacked by the same real enemy which is the spirit of hatred... This same enemy seeks to destroy us both by pitting us against one another." ~ Thomas Merton

Friday, October 26, 2007

DELUSIONS ABOUT GOD-TALK

I hate to come back to the same topic twice in a row, unless it is a hot news story. But I will make an exception here. I should have mentioned, in yesterday's post about Rowan Williams' Swansea lecture, that Nicholas Lash has written a trenchant article about Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and its reception, in the August 2007 edition of the journal New Blackfriars (pictured). Lash, a theologian for whom I have immense respect and admiration, is both irenic and meticulous in his approach to intellectual matters. On this occasion, however, he can't hide his accompanying astonishment and outrage that this work is being taken seriously by thinking people, whatever their persuasion. I guess if you've spent 50 years of your life studying, reflecting and agonising over a subject at the highest level, it must be more than a little frustrating to contemplate a best-seller so woefully inadequate and tendentious in its assertions - which, Lash argues, with precision, is precisely the case here. The material on what it does and doesn't mean to "believe in God", and why 'religion' and 'science' as overarching categories are deeply misleading of careful and useful talk about the sciences and the faiths (plural), is very helpful. Here is the abstract:

While Richard Dawkins' polemic against religion scores easy points against Christian fundamentalisms, he supposes his target to be much vaster: "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods". Given The God Delusion's lack of extended argument, historical ignorance and unfamiliarity with the literature, the praise it has received from some distinguished scientists is troubling.

This essay seeks, first, to examine some of the book's chief weaknesses – its ignorance of the grammar of "God" and of "belief in God"; the crudeness of its account of how texts are best read; its lack of interest in ethics – and, second, to address the question of what it is about the climate of the times that enables so ill-informed and badly argued a tirade to be widely welcomed by many apparently well-educated people.

The latter issue is addressed, first, by considering the illusion, unique to the English-speaking world, that there is some single set of procedures which uniquely qualify as "scientific" and give privileged access to truth; second, by examining historical shifts in the senses of "religion"; thirdly, by locating Dawkins' presuppositions concerning both "science" and "religion", his paradoxical belief in progress, and the reception which the book has received, in relation to tensions in our culture signalled, fifty years ago, by C. P. Snow.

The full article may be accessed as HTML or a *.PDF (Adobe) file here, in the top right hand corner, courtesy of Blackwells and the journal. The full citation: Nicholas Lash (2007)
Where Does The God Delusion Come from? New Blackfriars 88 (1017), 507–521.
doi:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2007.00172.x

I must admit that while I find Richard Skinner's injunction to Christians to take Dawkins seriously appealing and necessary in many respects, I share Lash's amazement at the good professor's lack of fairness and rigour. It is very sad. I hope that the trenchancy of Nicholas Lash's piece won't stop some people from entering into the important points it makes, though I suspect that will be the case. These contentions are more resonant of a war than a conversation, and the danger of that is that noise obliterates the harmonic quality essential to fruitful discussion. We live in an age that often disconnects the temptation of rhetoric from the love of reason. But that, Lash contends, is precisely what has happened in and around The God Delusion. And it is difficult but to conclude that it's author, on some levels, has willed it so through his summary dismissals.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

MAKING SENSE: EXPLORATORY, EXPLANATORY AND FIDUCIARY

I'm pleased to see that Lambeth - with a little encouragement from me, among others - has made available in good time the delivered text of Rowan Williams's recent public lecture at the University of Swansea on 'Misunderstanding Religion'. (Given that bits of it have been quoted widely in the media, it is good to have the complete version, and it becomes immediately clear that one or two accounts have walked right past its subtlety and care... as is the way of reporting on intellectual endeavours these days, sadly.)

I am about to highlight some excerpts and offer commentary for Ekklesia, but thought I'd immediately pop something up here. The two main points of Williams' (gentle, other than on meme postulates) contention with Dawkins, mentioned at the beginning of the excerpt below, are dealt with at some length in the lecture. So if you want to understand more, go there. Taking chunks from what Rowan says is always tricky, because he is very careful in the way he weaves his ideas, examples and propositions together. I've chosen a piece on the fiduciary dimensions of common knowledge and communication, because the simplistic notion has got around - promoted by Dawkins and others - that 'faith' is divorced from, unaccountable within, and the antithesis or denial of, rationality; rather than what it can be - the critical practice and awareness of a trust that is needed for the whole enterprise of reasoning to work at all.

Of course Williams would be the first to say - and indeed has said here - that this does not necessarily entail faith in God. But he would also contend, as I would, that rightly understood (that is, differently understood to some popular caricatures) faith in God is, while clearly contestable, quite reasonable: that is, it is capable of being accounted for in ways that make sense, though without claims to invulnerability. These ways cannot simply be deduced from, or reduced to, forensic statements or analogies about how we 'know' things and processes within the universe however, which is the logical impossibility demanded by some dogmatic forms of atheism. Rather, a fiduciary framework is epistemically entailed in God-talk because of the claimed nature of what it seeks to address - a transcending Giver, Gift and Giving which are, by definition, not specifiable features of the universe but the unconditioned and unconditionable source of it. This isn't an evasion, as some claim. It's simply a way of saying what is logically meant by God once we have stripped back, for the purposes of clarity, what Williams calls the "unguarded terms" of popular religious expression. Nicholas Lash unpacks this very well in his writings, not least in The Beginning And The End of Religion, and I have tried to follow suit in What Difference Does God Make Today? and various other pieces, including Three ways to make sense of one God. OK, here's Rowan Williams:

You can misunderstand religion as a survival strategy; you can misunderstand religion as a form of explanation. And staying within that second issue for a moment: it’s not a question about bad scientific explanations and good scientific explanations. Scientific explanation always looks for specific causes inside the universe. That’s what science is. Theological language, religious language, asks if there is a ground for the very idea of a regular world of which you can make sense. And religious language perhaps appropriately therefore at the very least reminds the scientist that in every intelligible act there is an act of faith. I’m not suggesting that when the scientist goes into the laboratory every morning, he or she renews consciously with a little recitation of creed and canticles, a belief that what’s going to go on during the day will make sense. Yet the act of faith which says we can communicate with each other in consistent and coherent ways is a real act of faith. Even at the most trivial level, when we speak to each other we make a great many rather remarkable assumptions... But my point is that whenever we communicate we assume there is something we can trust in language which will allow us to move forward, to explore, to listen, to argue, even. And without that act of faith we wouldn’t begin any process of explanation or theory in any area whatsoever.

[and then a fair bit further on] We have no obvious knock-down arguments. But we say to the critic ‘look at how the focal practices of religion – not seen as survival strategy or explanation - as they actually exist. Look at how they work to create self-questioning and trust. That self-questioning and trust may be going forward on a truthful basis or not. No external force is going to settle that for us. But before writing off the religious enterprise watch, watch what happens as persons of faith grow in these habits of self-questioning and trust; in the understanding of what the Christian would undoubtedly call justification by faith.

Self-questioning and trust are not peculiar to religious people. Just as impressive moral integrity is not – God knows – the preserve of religious people. But for the secularist, for the systematic critic of religion, moral integrity, self-inspection, fundamental trust must either be reduced to a personal option (I do this because I choose to do this) or it must be reduced to another form of survival strategy. And some of the problems with that, I’ve already touched upon. The religious believer says in contrast, that moral integrity, self-inspection, honesty, openness and trust are styles of living which communicate the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency that most religions call God. Agree or disagree, is what I would want to say to our contemporary critics, but at least grasp that that is what is being claimed and talked about. Don’t distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or an irrational form of explanation.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

MILITARISM INTO HUMANITARIANISM DOESN'T GO

The prospect of a Turkish attack on northern Iraq reveals a hollow global consensus on 'humanitarian intervention' and a European identity crisis, argues Slavoj Zizek - now in residence teaching international relations at Birbeck College. I greatly enjoy Zizek's provocations on radical religion (like The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge / MIT, 2003). Whatever he writes about he is never less than argumentatively interesting and restlessly engaging. Even (perhaps especially) when bits of it annoy you. This piece needed some editing ('pacifying' becomes pacifism, for instance) and the last paragraph definitely needs unpacking. What is the new Europe that must break from the old, and who defines it? Nevertheless, the piece poses some useful questions and issues, not least here:

The problem with militaristic humanism resides not in "militaristic" but in "humanism". Under this doctrine, military intervention is dressed up as humanitarian salvation, justified according to depoliticised, universal human rights, so that anyone who opposes it is not only taking the enemy's side in an armed conflict but betraying the international community of civilised nations. This is why, in the new global order, we no longer have wars in the old sense of regulated conflict between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons, etc). We instead confront violations of the rules of universal human rights; they do not count as wars proper, and call for the "humanitarian [pacifying]" intervention of the western powers - especially in the case of direct attacks on the US or other representatives of the new global order. One can hardly imagine a neutral humanitarian organisation such as the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organising the exchange of prisoners, and so on. For one side in the conflict already assumes the role of the Red Cross - it does not perceive itself as one of the warring sides but as a mediating agent of peace and global order. The key question is, thus: who is this "we" on behalf of whom Kouchner, Blair et al are speaking? Who is included in it and who is excluded?

Monday, October 22, 2007

TRULY CREASED LIVING

"Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here."
- Annie Dillard

Sunday, October 21, 2007

FOR THE LOVE OF BLOG

There's been a huge amount of publicity recently about how the web, blogs and social networking sites can play a significant role in galvanizing action for sustainability, justice and peace. Are they a vehicle for political change? Mobilisation of action to back democracy protests in Burma is a recently cited example. But in a way the pioneers in using the net as part of the effort to challenge corporate power were the McLibel activists who took on the might of McDonald's on a range of issues, from poor labour practices, public health (diet) and animal mistreatment, right through to environmental disregard. On a number of key points they won, and those they lost were largely due to the massive imbalance of power tilted against them. Groups like Speak (the student Christian initiative) are also harnessing the web to positive global campaigning ends. Christian Aid has the excellent Pressureworks. And of course Ekklesia exists substantially on the web, both as a think-tank on religion and public life and as a place where reporting and comment on events goes on. One of the factors here is the blurring of lines between blogging and other kinds of traditional and/or web-based action. A relatively new initiative in this field, fairly broad and inclusive in its remit, is Blog Action Day, which took place on 15 October 2007 - and which I'm afraid I missed. But they are now registering people for 2008. Blogger, the system I used, have recently highlighted some of the sites powered by them that focused on the environment, climate change, and sustainability during the day. Here (below) are some examples. Obviously I'm not endorsing them all, just giving a flavour. Others can be found on Blog Search.
  • Cleantech Blog - Commentary on technologies, news, and issues relating to next generation energy and the environment.
  • The Conscious Earth - Earth-centered news for the health of air, water, habitat and the fight against global warming.
  • Earth Meanders - Earth essays placing environmental sustainability within the context of other contemporary issues.
  • Environmental Action Blog - Current environmental issues and green energy news.
  • The Future is Green - Thoughts on the coming of a society that is in balance with nature.
  • The Green Skeptic - Devoted to challenging assumptions about how we live on the earth and protect our environment.
  • Haute*Nature - Ecologically based creative ideas, art & green products for your children, home and lifestyle, blending style with sustainability.
  • The Lazy Environmentalist - Sustainable living made easy.
  • Lights Out America - A grassroots community group organizing nationwide energy savings events.
  • The Nature Writers of Texas - The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State.
  • Rachel Carson Centennial Book Club - Considering the legacy of Rachel Carson's literary and scientific contributions with a different book each month.
  • Sustainablog - News, information and personal meanderings related to environmental and economic sustainability, green and sustainable business, and environmental politics.
  • These Come From Trees - An experiment in environmentalism, viral marketing, and user interface design with the goal of reducing consumer waste paper.
[Picture: (c) Pressureworks]

Saturday, October 20, 2007

REMEMBERING A SILENCED WITNESS

... and celebrating a living one. Here is a fine and moving article by Paul Oestreicher. It is about Franz J├Ągerst├Ątter, born in 1907 in the village of St Radegund to an unmarried farmhand, not far from Hitler's birthplace, who refused to fight in an unjust war. He knew that the penalty was death and remains a beacon of hope. Paul, who has had the distinction of being a Quaker chaplain at the University of Sussex, in Anglican orders, and a counsellor for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (among many other roles), knows very directly the horrors he describes, given his family history. He has been a shining example to me and many others within the ecumenical and peace movements. He is vice-president of CND and a former chair of Amnesty International UK, and was the pioneering director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. He holds New Zealand, German and British nationality. Sadly, we moved to Exeter from Brighton precisely around the time he moved there and married Barbara Einhorn, a specialist in gender studies. (They are pictured together here.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

SEEKING A PLURAL VIEW

The Religion and Secularism Network is coordinating a programme of lectures and workshops taking place at the University of Cambridge and elsewhere - aiming to clarify the relationship between the state and religion conceptually and empirically. It is funded under the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Workshop. It is coordinated by David Lehmann, John Barber, Humeira Iqtidar and Emile Perreau-Saussine.

This is a project Ekklesia is participating in rather than running. We are endorsing, supporting and collaborating in it as part of our own research/discussion programme on inclusive models of secularity and the challenge of post-Christendom - under the overall banner Reconsidering the Secular.

R&SN contact: David Lehmann - http://www.davidlehmann.org

At Ekklesia: Simon Barrow.

See also from Ekklesia: Reconsidering the Secular (research prospectus), Facing up to fundamentalism (research paper, SB), A new discourse on race and faith politics (statement of NGN), Redeeming Religion in the Public Square (research paper, SB), Faith and Politics After Christendom (book, Jonathan Bartley), Rethinking hate speech, blasphemy and free expression (policy paper, SB), Toward the abolition of the nation state? (Richard Franklin, with Sarum College), God and the politicians (response paper, SB). Ekklesia and the 'secularism versus religion' argument.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

THOUGHT WITHOUT THE NEED FOR TANKS

Here is an extended version of an interview with me that appears in the October 2007 edition of 'Movement', the magazine of the Student Christian Movement (SCM). After an introduction to Ekklesia's approach, it goes on to look at how 'post-Christendom' completely changes what is popularly taken to be "the problem" about religion and politics - creating radical new possibilities unimagined by institutional religion and anti-religion. With thanks to Howard Ingham.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING...

"One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world. Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same [person] thinks and puts [his or her] thought into action." Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, pp. 72-3

Weil's point, I hope it is clear, is not to question the need for rationality (it is a rationally argued position), but to remind us that neither absolute certainty nor endless scepticism are adequate to what is given to us in the fabric of life: an "isness" which provides the condition of our exploring, and an "excess" which defies our attempts to specify the "is", except through the demands of action and language. And through theological "naming" in the midst of these, it might be added. There are comparisons here with John Macmurray's post-Cartesian, personalist, 'philosophy of action'.

[Picture: (c) g8 'Escaping Reality']

Monday, October 15, 2007

TURNING THE TABLES

At a time when much 'religion' in the US is seen to have a domineering agenda in political life, and to be in the pocket of powerful (and wealthy) vested interests, three representatives of a more progressive, subversive and cooperative tradition get together to explore how to generate a new, liberating dynamic in the exchange between spirituality and social action. (Click on the image for more details)

WHERE ARE OUR REAL CRACKS?

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, the new installation in the turbine hall at the Tate Modern gallery in London, has been attracting a good deal of attention. Not least because a couple of people have managed to fall into it. The reason - apart from carelessness and perhaps a bit of contriving - is that it is a crack in the floor, beginning at one end of the installation as a hairline fracture, and opening out into a deep fissure in the middle of the hall. When it is removed it will leave a permanent scar.

A Shibboleth, points out Dean Ayres, is a word or cultural device that acts as a test of membership of a society (from Judges 12:1-6). The exhibition leaflet goes on to comment:

‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.

In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Dean Ayres comments : "Perhaps Shibboleth will help us think about how racial divisions run through British society, where many people are blinded by the belief that we've grown beyond racism. Or maybe we'll just play around with the crack, and never look to closely at what it signifies."

See also: Crack in Tate Floor Reflects Race, Wealth Divide: Karen Wright (Bloomberg) and Doris Salcedo: A glimpse into the abyss (Telegraph).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

THE GOD WHO SECULARISES US

This, below, from an interesting reflection ('How do we talk about the Spirit?') by theologian James Alison (pictured), who also gave a stimulating Greenbelt seminar entitled Stand up and be godless: on receiving the gift of faith. He is lecturing at St Martin-in-the-Field, London, 30 October 2007, on Love your enemy: within a divided self.

"When we’re talking about God we’re talking about the protagonism, the real protagonism, behind everything that is, and of which we are the symptoms – rather than [conceiving God as] an object within our field of vision..... Because God is protagonist and is not part of anything that is, one of the effects of us becoming involved in the life of God is a certain secularising quality, because what God does is let us off 'gods'. The discovery of the Creator – the Jewish discovery of the Creator – was a massive breakthrough into what we would call secularism, by comparison with the uber-religious world populated by gods. If you compare, for instance, Genesis or Isaiah with the contemporary Babylonian accounts of creation, there is no question which is the religious one. It’s not the Jewish one. The doctrine of the incarnation [likewise] secularises history for us – history and social movement – by exploding the [system of] sacrifice and the lie [of scapegoating] and enabling new forms of community to come along so that we can detect what is not of God and we start becoming freer of religious forces driving us down... I wonder to what extent, now, we’re not in a position to talk about how Holy Spirit secularises us, by letting us off various forms of ‘sacred’ into which our understanding of desire has got caught."

See also: Sacrifice, Law and the Catholic Faith: is secularity really the enemy? - The Tablet Lecture, 2006.
IDEALLY SPEAKING...

"Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood." - William Shakespeare

Thursday, October 11, 2007

MUSLIM SCHOLARS SAY PEACE IS MAINSTREAM

Over 130 Muslim scholars and leaders from around the world have today released the text of a letter to Christian leaders that outlines proposed areas of understanding between the faiths and urges a search for "common ground."

Addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and and major leaders of Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal churches and other Christian bodies, the 29-page letter offers interpretations of both the Qur'an and the Bible on the love of God, love of neighbour and other spiritual precepts that are similar in Christianity and Islam.

"The Unity of God, the necessity of love for [God], and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity," say 138 Muslim leaders, representing all branches of the faith, say in the letter entitled A Common Word Between Us and You.

More on Ekklesia (including a response from Dr Aref Ali Nayed, visiting fellow at the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies in the faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and Advisor on Muslim-Christian Dialogue issues to the Sheikh Muhammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding) and the on the BBC website.

Monday, October 08, 2007

NOT SO FAST...

I decided to expand my comments about the practice of fasting (yesterday) a little in my Guardian Comment-is-Free column - and join in myself today.

Hunger for justice Simon Barrow Oct 08 07, 02:30pm: Americans are today fasting for peace in Iraq. But is it possible for such actions to really make a difference?

In a voraciously consumer society, where luxuries rather than necessities are the preoccupation of a majority, fasting also has a certain political poignancy. When the quest to possess and devour more and more takes over, our personal and social priorities are fundamentally altered. Instead, fasting points us in the direction of sharing and the otherwise unimaginable politics of "
enough ".

What people are learning through hungering for justice is that trying to come up with policies for a better world is not enough. We need changed people to want them and to make them work. That involves re-shaping our desires, not just our political hopes.

Pic: Witness for Peace, Mexico

Sunday, October 07, 2007

FASTING FOR LIFE

People from a range of traditions in the US and elsewhere are fasting for peace in Iraq tomorrow, as part of a continuing commitment to work and pray for change - the theme being "from conquest to community, from violence to reverence".

The idea of fasting is little comprehended these days, probably being seen merely as a piece of punitive self-abuse by those persuaded of Dawkins-like simplifications. In the Gospels, Jesus warns against the manipulation of fasting by religious authorities. Rightly understood, however, it a practice of self-examination and social re-orientation, based on the notion that human beings are not simply the sum total of their appetites - but have the God-given capacity to transcend self in solidarity with those who are denied the bread of life, and in reaching out towards the gift of a transformative love beyond limited or tribal affections.

Fasting is therefore an integrative discipline, based on the realisation that we think with our bodies and desires, not with disembodied and unaffected minds (the conceit of a certain naive conception of autonomous reason). Our rationality is inextricably bound up with our being relational creatures - 'dependent, rational animals', as the moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has put it. There is genuine liberation in this.

In a consumer society, fasting has a particular poignancy. As a distinctly 'religious' practice with broad roots it can connect with 'secular' initiatives like Buy Nothing Day (coming up on 24 November 2007) and other attempts to resist the "thou shalt have no other jeans before me" culture. That, by the way, is the wonderful title of an essay by the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle. It appears in a collection of essays edited by social theorist Jurgen Habermas called The Spiritual Situation of the Age (MIT Press).

Saturday, October 06, 2007

MEDIA MAKETH THE DEMO?

Public protests are, by their nature, designed to gain publicity for a cause. As a veteran of such occasions over the years, I know that this is not straightforward process. A certain ritual is involved, especially in the inevitable numbers game. Police issue attendance statistics which are between a third and half the size of the organisers. Papers report up and down this scale according to their editorial sympathy or otherwise. Statisticians scratch their beards and go somewhere for the middle.

Then if the subject of the protest is "newsworthy" (popular and mainstream) reporters will take some interest, irrespective of it's actual size. Thankfully, that applied to today's Burma rally in London's Trafalgar Square. A turn-out of less than 2,000 was frankly a bit disappointing. But PM Gordon Brown met Buddhist monks and others in a photocall at No 10 before heading off to say there almost certainly wouldn't be a November 2007 general election. And Burma has been front page news for ten days, with global concern. So the BBC gave the demo coverage, and so will tomorrow's papers.

But if the topic had been less amenable to government interests or less immediately accessible to the increasingly narrowly defined mainstream 'news agenda', then a gathering ten times that size wouldn't have guaranteed even so much as a mention. Remember marches against the former Chilean junta during the Thatcher years? They got 20-30,000 people and were almost invisible, press-wise.

These days, the game has shifted. Facebook's remarkable 350,000 global social networking site in support of the Burmese monks (register to access) has attracted huge attention in itself. The demography of protest is measurable virtually as well as actually. And IT means that small-scale individuals can take on corporate interests as never before. The Burmese junta has had to work very hard to keep information and support out as part of its repression. To a significant extent it has failed. You can kill your opponents, but you can't stop the spirit of freedom in the long run...
BUSH LIKES CIGARETTES MORE THAN POOR KIDS?

So whatever happened to "compassionate conservatism", then? Go figure... the National Council of Churches USA, the United Methodists and other secular and religious NGOs are continuing the struggle. Jon Stewart has a brilliant satirical take (which raises some serious points in a highly entertaining way) on The Daily Show:

ACCEPTING EVANGELICALS SPEAK OUT

Contrary to the popular media image, many evangelicals are not anti-gay, says a UK campaigning network which draws hundreds of evangelical Christians and their friends together. This week they are backing the launch of a church education initiative on Jesus and prejudice. Read the full story here. See also: Why Evangelicals must think again about Homosexuality by Roy Clements. Some years ago I authored a pamphlet (which began life as a public talk) called Towards Communion: Recovering sexuality as an ecumenical concern. That was just before things turned so very, very nasty in the churches.

Friday, October 05, 2007

NOT FORGETTING AFGHANISTAN

In addition to the huge variety of Burma activities over this weekend, Christian Peacemaker Teams UK, the London Catholic Worker, the Oxford Catholic Worker and Voices UK are organising a peace walk through London on Sunday 7 October 2007 to mark the sixth anniversary of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The walk will highlight the call for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan and the withdrawal of British troops. Those taking part are being encouraged to wear black or white clothing and symbols. The peace walkers will meet at 10am on Sunday at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 78 Bishopsgate, EC2, near the Bank and Liverpool Street underground stations.

For more information, contact 0845 458 2564. See also: http://www.voicesuk.org

SOME INSPIRATIONS FOR LIVING WELL

"There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less."
- G.K.Chesterton

"This is what you should do:
Love the earth and sun and animals,
Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
Stand up for the stupid and crazy,
Devote your income and labour to others,
hate tyrants,
Argue not concerning God,
Have patience and indulgence toward the people...
Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,
Dismiss what insults your very soul,
And your flesh shall become a great poem."
- Walt Whitman (Preface, Leaves of Grass)

"Just how would you demonstrate to others that you are true disciples and followers of Christ except by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the poor, comforting the sick and imprisoned, washing feet and showing love for one another?"
- Leonhard Schiemer, CE 1527.

"The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all art and science. So to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; [their] eyes are closed."
- Albert Einstein

"Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not God [in Godself]."
- Madeleine L'Engle

(Hat-tips to Karin McDonald and to Tim Chesteron. Jesus Icon image (c) from Ancient Sculpture Gallery, with thanks)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

INTERNATIONAL BLOGGERS' DAY FOR BURMA

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

RELIGION AND FREE SPEECH

Another good article by the prolific commentator Sunny Hundal (Pickled Politics, Asians in Media, the New Generation Network and various other projects) on The Guardian's Comment-is-Free (Cif): Muslims should embrace free speech. Some religious groups may instinctively want to censor ridicule of their faith. But it harms them in the longer term, he argues. The article ends:

"[R]eligious minorities aren't the only ones who misunderstand free speech and expression. It isn't uncommon for readers on Cif and elsewhere to demand that the niqab be banned because it offends them. Similarly, I recall Brownie on Harry's Place calling for Neil Clark's article on Cif to be censored; and Norm Geras saying Columbia University should never have invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently. I find it amusing when people are happy for the BNP to make idiots of themselves in the media, but not others.

"I understand that many Muslims feel under attack right now, given that xenophobic attacks on them have become commonplace. The problem is that most people don't think logically; they think emotionally. While Jews and Christians have become more politically astute in realising that creating a stink only backfires in their faces, most Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are woefully immature in this regard. Free speech is especially important for minority groups because when there is a crackdown through legislation on 'unpopular' thoughts, it usually affects them disproportionately. It's about time they realised this."

Frankly, I'm not sure that many Christians have grasped the free speech message with much maturity, either. Just over a year ago I suggested why the churches and Christian campaigning groups need to be challenged practically and theologically on this issue. See also the Ekklesia paper: Rethinking hate speech, blasphemy and free expression from the time of the promulgation of legislation on the topic.
FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY?

I'm writing about the Northern Rock crisis and responses to it at the moment. The need for a radical re-conception of dominant economic modes is highlighted by the New Economics Foundation, The Christian Council for Monetary Justice, the work of Richard Douthwaite, and Peter Selby's book Grace and Mortgage, among other sources. Meanwhile, I look forward to Philip Goodchild's forthcoming book (October 2007) The Theology of Money, summarised below. (My own modest contribution is a research paper called Is God bankrupt?)

This philosophical and theological study of the nature
and role of money in the contemporary world comes from one of the UK’s most renowned philosophers. By contrast to the received wisdom of economics that money is a passive object of human invention and control – an instrument of exchange and a measure of value – this work explores the significance of money as a social contract and therefore as a dynamic social force within the global economy. Goodchild examines the theory of money in a comparable manner to Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Georg Simmel. However by contrast to the conclusions of these thinkers, he proposes that money is essentially created in excess of reserves, making it a simultaneous credit and debt. Since money is a debt that must be repaid with interest in the form of money, then the creation of money imposes a social demand for an increase in profit and an increase in the creation of money in order to repay debt. This vicious circle drives the expansion of the global economy. In summary, Goodchild argues that money is a promise, a supreme value, a transcendent value and an obligation or a law. He argues that money has taken the place of God. It is the dominant global religion in practice, even if no one believes in it in principle.


Philip Goodchild came to prominence as one of the earliest generation of scholars of Deleuze, and he has also made a significant contribution to Continental philosophy of religion with two edited volumes, Rethinking Philosophy of Religion, 2002 and Difference in Philosophy of Religion, 2003. His major monograph, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, 2002 was described by one academic journal as ‘a defining book of the decade’. This book develops these ideas further.

Two extracts from this title are available for download, courtesy of SCM Press Ltd:

Chapter One (Size:80 KB) Introduction (Size:121 KB)
CRISIS CONTINUES IN BURMA

Scores of Buddhist monks are trying to leave Burma's main city, Rangoon, following the military's bloody crackdown on anti-government protests, reports say. (Monks 'seeking to flee Rangoon' BBC Report).

Latest News






  • Global Day of Action for Burma: Saturday October 6th 2007


  • The Lady of Burma Play to be Performed in London this Friday



  • Burma Activist Gets Standing Ovation at Conservative Conference



  • Timber firm D.A Watts & Sons to stop selling Burma teak



  • Article 19: UN Human Rights Council Must Act



  • Congressman Pitts Calls on all EU Countries to Support Sanctions against the Dictatorship in Burma

    ENVIRO-MENTALISM?

    So much church communication is, well, a bit rubbish. Which makes the new YouTube video campaign by Christian Aid - highlighting the demand for an 80 per cent carbon emission cut in the upcoming Climate Change Bill - particularly gratifying. This is my favourite of the two. Full story here.

    Tuesday, October 02, 2007

    BURMA, LONELY PLANET AND THE BBC

    Good piece of digging by Dean Ayres, whose blog is always worth reading in any case.

    Monday, October 01, 2007

    SO THE TORIES ARE STILL TORIES, THEN

    That is, they talk about the environment, 'the politics of hope' and social responsibility these days, have a new warm logo and a telegenic leader who exudes unspecific niceness. But what really gets them excited is giving 3.5 billion pound tax advantages to the wealthy to ensure that deep-seated disparities of wealth based on inheritance and off-shore domiciles remain, with a little cosmetic dressing (token sums from the extremely rich to the slightly-less-but-still-pretty-rich). They also refuse to regulate the financial services industry while bleating about personal debt and trying to blame the treasury for a smaller chunk of borrowing. Not that Mammon gets much of a challenge from the other main parties, of course. But at least they don't believe in the "economic necessity of inequity" as a moral principle (a key element in Conservative economic thought, even in its non-Thatcherite guises). Well, Blair came close. By contrast, Douglas E. Oakman suggests reasons for resisting such ideologies, for some of us anyway. Based on philological considerations and contextualization of the very earliest Jesus traditions, especially Luke 16:13, this article argues that at the core of the concern of Jesus of Nazareth was a critique of Mammon (a domination system that idolizes wealth), developed in terms of an alternative practice of power in relation to a vision of the unlimited givingness of God.