Thursday, January 17, 2008
The growing number of abused and neglected street children throughout the world, often the victims of political conflict, war, criminal gangs, HIV-AIDS and economic exploitation, is alarming. Estimates vary, but an oft-cited UNICEF figure is that the number of children living independently in the streets, most aged between 10 and 14 years, totals between 100 million and 150 million worldwide, and is forecast by 2020 to have increased to 800 million.
Put that way it looks insurmountable. Of course it is the political, economic, social and cultural-religious problems underlying the crisis that need to be addressed. But grassroots humanitarian and community-building responses are also vital. I heard of one such at my local church, St Stephen's in Exeter, on Sunday. Ian Harvey and Mark Gant are doing a remarkable job establishing a project called Kimbilio (Swahili for a place of refuge) in Congo's second city, Lubumbashi. There are some 250,000 street children in DRC alone.
You can find out more about Kimbilio here and at the Congo Children Trust online, which is also receiving PayPal donations. The project is being established in cooperation with the local Anglican Church, and with some support by CMS and others here.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
"Who has not, at some time, been lonely in the midst of a social event? The feeling of our separation from the rest of life is most acute when we are surrounded by it in noise and talk. We realize then much more than in moments of solitude how strange we are to each other, how estranged life is from life.... The walls of distance, in time and space, have been removed by technical progress; but the walls of estrangement between heart and heart have been incredibly strengthened. - Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations
In his theological explorations, Tillich rightly recognised the challenge of post-Enlightenment cultures to traditional Christian formulations. But his attempts at correlative solutions often underestimated the flexibility and durability of the tradition. He was at his most persuasive in his sermons, I think - The Eternal Now (pictured) as well as the aforementioned Foundations.
The decidedly weird scenario of a British government minister setting up a think-tank which ends up primarily as a conduit for money going to a political campaign (the deputy leadership of the Labour Party) has led the BBC to ask what, exactly, a think-tank is these days. A good question, and one that I have an obvious investment in: see my Learning To Think Without Tanks. Naturally I am happy that Ekklesia got a mench in the Beeb's overview. The comment from political commentator Anthony Howard, a former editor of The News Statesman in the 'old days', was especially prescient: It's rather like in medieval times when you would have set up a monastery," he observed. "Now you set up a think-tank." That would explain why I spend so much time in a darkened room, hunched over tomes of wisdom and a flickering screen, then.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
I'm a big enthusiast for Oikocredit, the global social investment initiative that works against poverty and for human and environmental development through small loans - correcting an imbalance within the wider economic system (it is hard for small, poor groups to get credit). Of course larger political and economic challenges to the predominant neoliberal order are also needed, but alternatives at the grassroots are vital. Ground-up action can help reshape priorities in a divided and unequal world. At the moment the initiative is seeking to kick start in the UK and needs all the backing it can get.
With its origins in work carried out by the World Council of Churches, Oikocredit is also a great example of Christians working alongside those of other faith or simply 'good faith' and furthering the human good without regard to the things - including religion, sadly - that can sometimes separate us. It is one very positive answer the the often asked question, 'what can I do that will make a difference?'"
Oikocredit UK rep Patrick Hynes explains: "People's investment enables Oikocredit to back microfinance institutions (MFIs), co-operatives and small to medium sized enterprises. Loans have proven to be very effective in stimulating economic productivity. Where grants may lead to dependency, loans create a real business partnership based on mutual respect. Plus, repaid loans are recycled time and again into new loans."
He adds: "If you invest £1,000, with Oikocredit's usual dividend standing at 2% per annum, this will normally provide you a financial return of £20 plus a substantial social return. If you placed that money in the bank you might earn say £50, a difference of £30. You could of course donate £30 to charity, but ask yourself what will do more good: a donation of £30 or a loan of £1,000?"
Those interested in helping can download a UK prospectus and application form and also get information about projects which show how the money is used. Further questions may be directed to the Oikocredit UK Representative, or your local support association.
You can also help spread the word with Oikocredit leaflets for your local community, church, group or meeting.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Sunday, January 13, 2008
For those counting the days to the 2009 end of the Bush presidency in the USA (and there are even more in other parts of the world than in America itself) the question of who will contest the next election is no small matter. Aside from the media fluttering around Barack Obama and John McCain over the past couple of weeks, and even though my own preference would have been for an Edwards candidacy, I'm still pretty convinced it will be Hillary Clinton against Rudy Guiliani. [A month later... wrong, wrong wrong. See my comment] The Democrats will go for Clinton because she's smarter and tougher than anyone else in the race. The Republicans (even large chunks of the religious right) will go for Guiliani because the political drift is against the GOP, and they need a candidate who can appeal to more than their heartlands. [McCain fits that bill, too] My faith in the mainstream options is distinctly limited, but along with Patricia Williams, professor of law at Columbia University and a regular columnist for the Nation, I now hope for a Clinton-Obama ticket, one way round or the other. As Williams puts it in today's Observer:
"In the coming months, I expect to see much confusion as the importance of gender, the visibility of race and the commitment to pretend none of it matters is sorted out. The American public is reeling with images of Hillary, our first viable female candidate for President, floating on the endorsements of a raft of black religious leaders, and Obama, our first viable black candidate for President, flanked by a pride of Oprah-watching, white 'soccer moms'. Add a sprinkling of Bill Clinton, popularly caricatured as our 'first black President'. Fold in Michelle Obama, popularly caricatured as an outspoken career woman who doesn't like to stay home and bake cookies any more than Hillary. Turn the pressure cooker to high.
"As the right's Rovean spinmeisters kick into action, wrapping both Obama and Clinton in sticky webs of hybridised stereotypes, she will be cast as too 'mannish', he too 'boyish'. She'll be too familiar, he too foreign.
"Yet I pray that we Americans can resist the vicious, vacuous, mudslinging mire of malapropisms from which the Bush presidency loped to power. This is an extraordinary moment in American history: we have our first serious black and female presidential candidates and they are, indeed, twice as good as their nearest contenders. I hope that the two of them, in whatever order, will become running mates by November. They must not fall prey to those who would love to see them played against each other in the scramble to be top dog."
Saturday, January 12, 2008
I've been "on the road" fairly remorselessly this week - Oxford, Exeter, north London, Kent, St Albans and back home. Events have included a religion and society academic workshop at the University of Oxford, several interviews, and an away-day for an Anglican church council and diocesan officers. The latter focussed on Christian engagement in politics as witness (example-based advocacy and engagement) rather than control (power and status based 'influence'), drawing on one of Stuart Murray's categories for the distinction between the dissipating Christendom order and the emerging post-Christendom situation of the churches. I have done a paper on The Church in the Public Arena which gives an overview of nine dimensions of an "alternative approach" to the question: Ecclesiological, Missional, Theological, Political, Ethical, Organisational, Performative, Spiritual, and Reconciliatory. It still needs a little more work, but is almost ready.
The aim is to elucidate the philosophy of a Christian politics which is neither manipulative nor sectarian, but outwardly engaged. Its character as subversive and counter-cultural cannot be disguised, however, in relation those forces in the social/economic/political order (both religious and non-religious) which are seeking to operate on the basis of large-scale inequality, structures of violence and ecological destruction. Post-Christendom Christian political action may not be seeking hegemony, but it is far from harmless, and it challenges certain 'secular' understandings of the political realm, while seeking partnerships and possibilities well beyond its own interests. The paper will be eady later in the week, I hope, though I have other work to do first.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Rethinking Religion in an Open Society (Ekklesia, 10 Jan 08). Though the role of religion in society has come back onto the agenda with a vengeance (sometimes literally) over the seven years that have elapsed since 9/11, the political, spiritual and intellectual resources at our disposal for handling the issues involved seem perilously thin on all sides in public life. This paper aims to reconstruct some key terms in the debate and to offer a positive case for a 'disestablished' form for religion within a plural social and political order. In particular it suggests that the alternative to hegemonic religion or attempts to exclude religion from public life lies in the rediscovery of an alternative form of politics rooted in practical 'goods' and 'virtues' derived from different communities and traditions, accompanied by the development of a 'civil state' framework. Full article here.
The paper is an expanded version of one entitled ‘The case for disestablished religion in a plural society’ that I delivered at the 9 January 2008 Religion & Society Seminar at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations Public Policy Unit – with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The original paper will shortly be available on the website of the Religion & Secularism Network at Cambridge University.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
"Gradually, the deep ambiguity of human life was turned from a burdensome into a freeing mystery. Freed from my energetic desire to constantly 'get it' and 'keep it together,' I could genuinely allow God to work in and through my abjections, not to make them better or neaten them up, but to allow me to be more compassionate, to judge others less, to serve them better."- Wendy M. Wright
Incidentally, a hugely formative book for me was (is) Ruth Page's Ambiguity and the Presence of God (SCM Press, 1985 - out of print, but available second-hand on the web). It's a philosophically tough and humanly tender exploration of the meaning and affection of God in relation to a frail and diverse world, facing the limitations of inherited metaphysics and the promise of "narrative description" as a way forward in sustainable God-talk.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
An unprecedented coalition is coming together in an attempt finally to bury Britain's archaic blasphemy laws. It will be interesting to see what happens to MP Evan Harris' amendment this week. My own statement on behalf of Ekklesia is here, highlighting the theological case for abolition. The Telegraph tells us that "it can reveal" Lord Carey's opposition to blasphemous libel on the statute book. In fact, we first reported it back in October 2005 (these debates move slowly) and the former Archbishop of Canterbury reiterated his position in November 2007, responding to my colleague Jonathan Bartley on BBC1's 'The Big Questions' TV show. The issue has been elevated by the fuss over Jerry Springer - The Opera, which has backfired spectacularly on those who tried to prosecute it. The signatories to the newspaper letter backing an amendment on the issue to to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill are: Philip Pullman, Lord Harries of Pentregarth (former Anglican Bishop of Oxford), Ricky Gervais, Nicholas Hytner, Shami Chakrabarti, Professor Richard Dawkins, Lord Carey of Clifton, Professor A.C. Grayling, Sir Jonathan Miller, David Starkey, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Stewart Lee, Michael Cashman, Joan Smith, Lady D’Souza, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Hanif Kureishi, Lord Desai, Roger Smith and Hari Kunzru.
Monday, January 07, 2008
Late last year, Huw Spanner published an article entitled 'Open Bible, engage brain' (Church Times, 30/11/07) which looked at the promise, possibility and problem of lay education in the churches. Huw generously quoted both Jonathan Bartley and me fairly extensively. Here's what I said. It was a phone interview, so it came as a surprise to me when I rediscovered it, too!
Simon Barrow, a co-director of Ekklesia who in the past has been heavily involved in lay training in the Church of England, says: “I believe that everyone in the church who wants to study it at a deeper level should do so – though there can be a false democracy that says that everybody is capable of thinking about things deeply, and that isn’t always the case.
“Nonetheless, theology needs to belong to the people, and if you go to communities in Latin America and Asia and elsewhere, you will see it being done by ordinary people. That is what the whole phenomenon of base communities was about. But a lot of the formal church institutions have been resistant to this sort of development, because if you really start to empower lay people to think theologically you will no longer be able to get away with running the church as a top-down institution as in the past. So, it is a threatening thing.”
Barrow believes that, if anything, its commitment to lay-focused and lay-centred education has diminished over the years. In part, he blames this on that “bizarre notion” that cultivating good habits of thinking about the meaning of the Christian faith and how it engages and communicates with society should be left to specialists.
“Here is a good example of the trouble this has got us into,” he says. “Look at the rise of the new atheism, with Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and so on. Where is the response to this? By and large, professional theologians disdain such debates, perhaps understandably, because they are conducted in such simplistic terms; but on the other hand an awful lot of people in the pews simply don’t know enough to engage with these arguments, which are having a considerable influence in our culture.”
Barrow relates the study of theology unequivocally to the mission of the Church. “It’s not simply about equipping people for various tasks within the Church, it’s about the whole encounter and engagement of the people of God with the world, both locally and globally. If lay people don’t study theology, it really is intellectual and spiritual suicide for the Church.”
Sunday, January 06, 2008
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester has stirred quite a reaction with his provocative article in the Sunday Telegraph arguing that Islamic extremism has made some areas of the country effective no-go areas (something many on the ground see as both a misrepresentation and a self-fulfilling prophecy) and that Britain's status as a 'Christian nation' led by an Established church is being eroded (which I have argued is a positive rather than a negative).
Third Way magazine (for whom I do a monthly Westminster column) will be publishing an extended interview with Dr Nazir-Ali (pictured) shortly - so this will set them up nicely. Actually, I was invited to consider being the interviewer, but I declined, because the aim of these 'High Profile' features is to get people to talk about their influences, and I was not sure I would be able to resist getting into a debate! My view of what he says is also conditioned by the fact that I know +Michael a bit. We first met when he became general secretary of CMS in 1989 (I wrote and edited their annual review that year, working as a freelance journalist), and then renewed acquaintance through the Mission Theological Advisory Group of CTBI and the Church of England (he was chair and I was a staff associate). I think we last met in mid-2007 during a public discussion about religion and society filmed in London by Premier Radio. I've always had great respect for him on a personal basis, though he seems to have moved towards ever more entrenched views over the past five years, and obviously I disagree with him strongly regarding his assessment of Establishment, 'Christian Britain' and what one might call the mixed-belief economy of modern Britain.
What we need right now is not Christendom revanchism (an impossibility anyway), but the rediscovery of a Christian vision which is self-sufficient enough not to need to prop or be propped by the state, open enough to engage with others on equal terms, historical enough not be fall prey to nostalgia, and subversive enough to recognise that the Gospel is about overturning the status quo rather than wanting to be its lynch pin. This is not an easy or even task, given the resurgence of fundamentalism, various "moral panics", the polite corrosions of civic religion, public indifference, establishment clericalism and the temptations of a rootless form of liberalism which mistakes hopelessness for open and critical enquiry. But success is not a promise to followers of Jesus. The rather different call to costly discipleship is.
In many respects I am more and more drawn towards the seemingly austere conclusion of Alasdair Macintyre's classic After Virtue, which suggests that in a hostile environment small communities of civility and virtue can chart a genuine way beyond the 'new dark ages' that may already be upon us. Superficially that sounds pessimistic, but it is not. It is realistic, given the state of the world, its environment, its religion and its politics. It is about investing in consistent, small-scale hope rather than falling for romanticm, Hobbes, Machiavelli or the illusions of power.
Saturday, January 05, 2008
"[G]rief and desperate loneliness aren’t political things but human things. It’s only when we can get to the humanity can we begin to get beyond the sterility of historic racial and religious conflicts. Facing the abiding realities of the human condition, facing death; your own, or that of someone you love, is something that puts everything else into perspective. Change, real change, happens when we’re ready just to be human – not to use our suffering as another weapon against each other, not to argue about whose sufferings are worse, but just to recognise the same love and the same loss." - Rowan Williams.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
"People who purport to be God's messenger on earth are a danger to politics.” —Lord David Steel, Lib Dem politician and member of the Church of Scotland, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme at the end of 2007.
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Sovereign One. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." —Isaiah 55.8-9
"When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." —Helder Camara, late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil
This from a few years ago: Keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics. (At some point this year I will transfer pre-2006 Ekklesia columns from the old site, which still exists as an archive, to the new one, which was launched earlier last year.)
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
War artist John Keane talks about his recent commission for the Children in Conflict exhibition in association with Christian Aid - arising from meeting an expropriated community in Angola's forgotten struggle with injustice. The wider project also includes Burma, Guatemala and Israel-Palestine.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
"The world can't end today, because it's already tomorrow in some countries" - Snoopy.
It would indeed be sad to be caught blogging just after midnight on New Year's Day -- so this is being post-dated by a few hours while I savour a glass of wine and contemplate the future along with all of you. Thanks for reading, commenting, arguing, inspiring others, and working for a world where flourishing and not mere survival is a possibility for many currently denied it. Have a happy and fruitful 2008!