Wednesday, November 30, 2005


This recently in on an Al-Jazeera released film from a militant group in Iraq which claims to be holding four peace workers from Britain, the US and Canada - three Christians and a man from a Sikh background. The kidnappings took place on Saturday. All have been working with the highly commendable Christian Peacemaker Teams, with which Ekklesia is associated in the UK. The charges of spying from what seems to be an insurgency-linked Islamist organisation are wholly untrue - indeed, ironically enough, CPT was in the forefront of exposing the Abu Ghraib scandal. On the current Iraq situation, see this wise comment on Pickled Politics. [The picture shows a CPT intervention in Israel-Palestine to stop soldiers shooting demonstrators]

I knew when I made my post yesterday of the CPT link, but we had to change an initial story on the Ekklesia site because of security concerns. Now both the situation and the evaluation have changed and CPT has made a public statement on its website. Channel 4 News (UK) did actually mention Christian Peacemaker Teams last night at 7pm, and the report was streaming on their site -- so inevitably the link got out. The difficulty is that militants are often unable to distinguish Christians who oppose violence and injustice from those they characterise as 'crusaders' and 'occupiers'. There are also elaborate conspiracy theories circulating all the time in Iraq. Kidnapping is a terrible and common occurence across the country, but especially in Baghdad. Let's hope and pray that the outcome of this one is positive. CPT obviously especially values support at the moment, as do the families of those who are missing.

In a recent 'Statement of Conviction, the long-term CPT Team members stated that they "are aware of the many risks both Iraqis and internationals currently face," and affirmed that the risks did not outweigh their purpose in remaining. They express the hope that "in loving both friends and enemies and by intervening non-violently to aid those who are systematically oppressed, we can contribute in some small way to transforming this volatile situation."

CPT does not advocate the use of violent force to save lives of its workers should they be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a conflict situation.

Christian Peacemaker Teams have been present in Iraq since October 2002, providing first-hand, independent reports from the region, working with detainees of both United States and Iraqi forces, and training others in non-violent intervention and human rights documentation. Iraqi friends and human rights workers have welcomed the team as a nonviolent, independent presence and asked that the team tell their stories.

CPT teams host regular delegations of committed peace and human rights activists to conflict zones, who join teams in working with civilians to document abuses and develop nonviolent alternatives to armed conflict. The CPT Iraq Team has hosted a total of 120 people on sixteen delegations over the last three years.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is a violence reduction programme. Units of trained peacemakers work in areas of lethal conflict around the world. In addition to the Iraq Team, teams of CPT workers are currently serving in Barrancabermeja, Colombia; Hebron and At-Tuwani, Palestine; Kenora, Ontario, Canada; and on the Mexico-United States border.

CPT is a multilateral initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant churches.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


[Updates 02/12/05: CPT Briefing; Petition; Taking risks for peace; Words of hope for Iraq detainees.

The appalling violence in Iraq is claiming many victims among those who try to challenge the cycle of revenge - through peacemaking, reporting and pilgrimage. Such is the logic of terror. In remembering especially the hostage and international Christian Peacemaker Teams at the moment, it is also important for us to recall that the majority of those killed, captured and torture are Iraqi and Muslim - and that many who carry out these actions tragically do so in the name of religion as well as ideology. The report on Ekklesia (excerpted below) gives more information and background. There is a good feature on CPT here. Their occasional feature column is also worth looking at, including the report earlier this year from Fallujah.

Search goes on for Christian peacemaker kidnapped in Iraq -28/11/05
The search continues tonight for a Christian associate of an organization that places violence-reduction units in crisis situations around the world, who has been kidnapped in increasingly lawless Iraq, alongside an American and two Canadians.

Two British Muslims on a religious pilgrimage have also been killed in an indiscriminate bus ambush by insurgents that also injured three other people.

Hostage Professor Norman Kember, aged 74, is a long-time advocate of nonviolence. He has been involved both in the
Baptist Peace Fellowship and in Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), an international network of religious pacifists. [Continued...]

FoR commented yesterday: "Norman has consistently stood for peace and against violence and war and opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. We ask all members and supporters of the Fellowship to pray for the safe return of Norman and the other aid workers to their families. We will post more news .. as soon as we can." [See also: UK CPT]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, November 28, 2005


The 'silent tsunami' is how HIV/AIDS is increasingly referred to across Asia, with some 20 mllion people likely to be affected within the next five years. If you are still looking for resources for World AIDS Day 2005 (which is on Thursday 1 December), Christian Aid - the UK-based international churches' development agency - has produced a very good pack called 'Acts of Faith', which is available free online here as a *.PDF file). You might think of making a donation in return. As well as stories from across Asia, there are prayers from a number of religious traditions and biblical reflections, plus information about practical projects. Also worth knowing about is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in the USA (see picture), which has been emulated across the world. Some churches in the UK, for example, have done their own quilting for 'The Body of Christ has AIDS' displays.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, November 27, 2005


That's Auchenflower in Queensland, Australia. I've noticed from having a peek at my webstats data that someone from the Uniting Church offices there drops in to FaithInSociety fairly regularly. You're very welcome. I'm fascinated by the unexpected links this medium creates - a kind of cyber-ecumenism. Anyway, I have fond memories of the UC during my two relatively brief sojourns in the wide, red land in 1988 and 1991 - though mostly that was in New South Wales (the socially and spiritually active congregation at Pitt Street, Sydney - "a mainstream alternative"), in Melbourne and Canberra. Anyway, do drop me a line (email on the feedback link below) if you're so inclined, dear friend. [The picture, by the way, is of a bushfire linked to the Advent B Liturgy, with its theme of light, produced as part of a useful database of resources on lectionary themes by retired Uniting Church minister Moira B. Laidlaw.]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Saturday, November 26, 2005


“To arrive at the point where the world can be truthfully named in its relation to God involves some grasp of [it] as pointless, futureless love.”

Rowan Williams (from Grace and Necessity, Continuum, 2005)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

I recently happened upon a ‘guided, interactive ritual’ on the web (thanks, Maggi). Ghastly jargon, good concept. It involves lighting a virtual candle as part of a flickering, global community of people who have decided – for a few minutes, at least – not to curse the darkness, but to signal hope. And its URL is ‘gratefulness’. A suitable gesture, along with gift-giving, for Buy Nothing Day. Which is today, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Earlier this week I overheard a conversation between two people at a bus stop. One was telling the other how tiresome she used to find it when, as a child, she was made to write little formulaic ‘thank you’ notes by her parents whenever someone gave her a present. Her friend agreed. They concluded that it was liberating to be freed from such meaningless gestures by ‘our more modern attitudes’. A minute-or-so later, both parties were cursing a young kid who had skateboarded past them and nearly knocked one of them over. When the other shouted at him to ‘mind where you’re going’, his blunt reply indicated that he too had been ‘liberated’ from any sense of formulaic obligation.

Gratitude is something I too was reared on. My father was one of the world’s great exponents on the thank-you note, and by comparison I have always felt inadequate on this front. Too many thoughtful gestures, too little time. Being quietly competitive, I guess I knew I was staring defeat in the face! But to him such gestures came naturally because he had cultivated a sense of gratefulness as a habit, a virtue to be shared. A man whose life was frequently marked by seemingly indelible pain and darkness, his frequent litany that “there is so much to be thankful for” was much more than an acquired denial – even though it could sometimes sound hollow to those (like me) of a more cynical bent.

What would it be like to view the life-world we inhabit as a gift and all human beings as “mysteries to be loved” (T.S. Eliot)? To live spiritually, whatever our ‘beliefs’, is precisely this, it seems to me. It is part of what enables us to resist the temptation of despoilation, to disarm the culture of threat, to honour those for whom the gift has died or is disfigured, and to discover in the grit of the other something in ourselves and them which has to be embraced rather than denied. This is a political as well as a personal challenge, and it needs schools of thankfulness (communities of example) to help us live this way. It requires what Brett Webb-Mitchell has called ‘the instilling of Christly gestures.’ By this ‘formulaic’ means we discover, slowly and not always easily, that we do not have to become over-dependent on ‘reasons to be grateful’. Gratitude receives the world it gives.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Friday, November 25, 2005


A modern Jewish poet, whose name eludes me for the moment, once versified to the effect that "where we are right, no flowers grow". The tendency of the religious imagination (so different to the sanctified imagination) to wish to 'know it all', to revel in a 'correctess' that knocks others down, is not a sign of faith but its denial. Rather than trusting in the God whose transcending of our limitations is given in the passionate brokenness and vulnerability of flesh, history and textuality, it substitutes a rationalist idea of a god who is the final justification of our version of being. The God of Jesus is the one who confounds this crucifying logic by absorbing it and living beyond it.

(Cartoon via Weary Pilgrim. I used to own a poster where Snoopy sagely observes, "the world can't end today, because it's already tomorrow in some countries.")

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, November 24, 2005


"If we seek to cling to inherited possessions, to hang on to our past, we shall find that it has slipped through our fingers. Whether we like it or not, words change their meaning, institutions their function, customs their use. Moreover, preoccupation with the retention of the past ensures inattention to the demands of the present. A form of Christianity which is concerned, first and foremost, with retaining its inheritance, is likely to prove insensitive both to the demands of present suffering and to problems concerning its institutional and linguistic insertion in contemporary culture. In other words, contrary to the best intentions of its adherents, such Christianity is likely to become, not a movement effectively concerned with the redemption of the human, with its liberating transformation in the direction of the promise, but an esoteric subculture. As such it is likely to possess not even the virtue of irrelevance: more probably it will fulfil a darker and more destructive social function. And if this seems an overstatement, I would remind you of the character and social implications of those forms of Christian self-perception which contributed most actively to the electoral success of [George W. Bush.]"

Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005).

Well, it was Ronald Reagan actually - since this is from a fine new collection of sermons. But the 'dynamic equivalence' is clear...

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Not here, there is not enough silence.

T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

(Though also an appropriate thought on the threshold of Advent...)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The incredible pain that's around in the Anglican Communion at the moment - not to mention the lascerations being inflicted around the globe more generally in the name of religion - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and more - put me in mind of this quote (below) from Rowan Williams' deeply moving and re-orienting book, The Wound of Knowledge. What a gift, both intellectual and spiritual, is being squandered by the warring in his Church right now! Also of relevance is the passionate statement, in a TV interview shortly before he died, from the heterodox playwright Dennis Potter - "What I have come to discover is that religion is the wound, not the bandage."

It is the intractable strangeness of the ground of belief that must constantly be allowed to challenge the fixed assumptions of religiosity: it is a given, whose question in each age is fundamentally one and the same. And the greatness of the Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked, and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.

As distinct from performing those actions on others, note. Corrupt religion or ideology is that which puts the question, the task and the challenge of living on someone else (a scapegoat) 'out there' and exacts revenge on behalf of its fretful certainty. In this way, whatever its label, it becomes truly evil.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, November 21, 2005


I've been meaning to write for several days on the further escalation of conflict around the anti-gay 'global South' Anglican Primates' letter to embattled Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and its implications - since I've been party to some conversations around this, and it is of much wider significance for Christians (not just Anglican ones) on how we handle our scripture and tradition, church polity and the sexuality debate -- more like a war, sadly. As someone painfully observed to me, "how these Christians hate one another... It's not supposed to be like that, is it? Didn't y'man Jesus have something to say about this, and precisely nothing about homosexuality?" Enough said.

If you haven't been following the latest sorry saga, it is mapped out in the following Ekklesia stories - we hope in a way that is fuller and a little fairer than many of the media reports now circulating... which have upped an already angst-ridden ante. Thinking Anglicans is tracking the range of current source materials on the story. I'll say more when I get a mo.

Anyway, here goes on the historiography (latest piece first): Pro-gay Anglicans say Nigerian Church 'obsessed' with gays 21/11/05; Bishop's name removed from disputed letter to Archbishop of Canterbury 21/11/05; Akinola denies rift over Primates' letter to Williams 21/11/05; Primates disown open letter to Archbishop of Canterbury 18/11/05; Global leaders query Church of England state link 18/11/05; Anglican Primates deny attack on Archbishop of Canterbury 18/11/05; Rowan Williams calls for active dialogue over gay conflict 17/11/05.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, November 20, 2005


"In order to meet the requirements of a competitive society, a person needs to go against the natural order of things. When s/he is tired, s/he continues to work. When s/he is angry s/he represses the emotions. When s/he is ill, s/he ignores the symptoms. When s/he grieves s/he hides the pain. When s/he loves, s/he loves superficially, replacing love with lust. S/he fears exposure. When s/he plays, s/he plays hard to win at all cost. S/he is deluded into believing s/he is free, yet in reality s/he is fragmented, separated, competitive and controlled." (adapted from Bill O'Hehir)

"We don't realize how much our world is controlled by created desires for things we do not need or really want…Let's fast from advertising." (Richard Rohr)

Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God. Be prepared to be changed from the inside out." (Romans 12:2a, adapted from Eugene Peterson, The Message)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Saturday, November 19, 2005


"The civilisation that confuses clocks with the time also confuses nature with postcards"... and, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, price with value. (Eduardo Galeano)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Friday, November 18, 2005


Difficult to know whether what might need to be put in response to Bishop Tom Butler's shoot-to-kill endorsement can really be heard. Any response other than conditional pragmatism is usually seen as airy-fairy pacifist Christian nonsense. Still, I believe it must be said. I'd have the greatest personal sympathy if anyone felt they had to kill to defend themselves or others, but that's different from making shoot-to-kill a police policy, which in turn is very different from endorsing such a policy in the name of the church. And why, for heaven's sake? To make us look macho and 'realistic'. Well that's not too hard, but where does it get us, especially when the policy is deeply flawed on other grounds, and when the churches have more positive options to contribute that don't involve judicially sanctioned violence? What follows is the Ekklesia media release. A longer version of the story (mainly extended at the end) is here.

Ekklesia, the UK Christian think tank, has questioned the anti-terrorism stance adopted by the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, when he this week defended the Metropolitan Police ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

Dr Butler was speaking during a two-hour debate in response to the 7 July London bombings at the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in London from 15-17 November 2005.

While highlighting civil liberties “anxieties” about certain aspects of the Terrorism Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament, he said that armed police might sometimes have to respond with lethal force to suspected suicide bombers.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, the Bishop of Southwark described such killings as a lesser of two evils. “Sometimes we have to judge between two things that are wrong to produce the best result,” he told an interviewer.

He added: “Obviously, killing somebody is never a right thing to do, but if it prevents many other people being killed, it may be the only thing to do.”

However the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has responded by saying that the role of Christian leaders is not to endorse violence as public policy, but to create alternatives to it.

“While we should respect the tough decisions that the police and others have to take in dealing with terrorists, it is sad to hear a representative of the Gospel supporting killing as an appropriate policy option,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

He continued: “The police shoot-to-kill policy backfired disastrously the first time it was employed, resulting in the death of an entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes. Experience suggests that it contributes to a cycle of violence, rather than being an effective antidote to it. We have to examine the bigger picture too.”

He added that it was dangerous, and often misguided, to calculate that a greater good would come out of a basically wrong action.

Civil liberties, human rights and religious groups, including Muslim organisations, have said that the police policy should be to disable and disarm potential bombers, not to risk gunning down innocents or creating martyrs.

Arab news media have interpreted Bishop Butler’s response as saying police officers should be allowed to gun down suspected suicide bombers.

Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow commented: “This isn’t a marginal question for the Christian community. Jesus prevented a supporter using violence at his arrest and called on his followers to respond to evil with good. Where we should be focussing our resources is on conflict transformation, arguing against the religious legitimation of violence, and building alternatives to the culture of armed hatred.”

Mr Barrow said that it was unhelpful and over-simple for the churches to think that they could have short-term answers to every human dilemma.

“Christian conscience sometimes has to say ‘no’ to courses of action which might seem immediately justifiable, but which actually divert us from the better way to which the costly message of Christ points,” he explained. “This isn’t irresponsibility, it’s alternative realism.”

Concluded the Ekklesia co-director: “While we can’t reduce the complex ethics and politics of this situation to ‘who would Jesus shoot-to-kill?’, it’s not a question we can avoid either – and the core of the answer points in a different direction to the bishop’s response.”

[Also on Ekklesia: Beyond the politics of fear: An Ekklesia response to the London bombings; and Of bishops, bombs and ballast]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

To pray unceasingly is to lead all our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God... Prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts – beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful – can be thought in the divine present. (Henri Nouwen)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, November 17, 2005


The weekly reflections of Johan Maurer, a US Quaker writer and academic, are always worth reading. This one links the depth of tradition with something very topical, reminding us that it is action and character which gives the lie to, or supplies the truth of, what comes out of our mouths and keyboards...

The first time I wrote about plain language, it was a reflection on the meaning of plain language in Quaker culture. Now I'm writing on plain language as exemplified by the word "torture."

These are not unrelated themes. Early Friends wanted to be plain in the sense of "transparent"—for the ego and its external vanities to get out of the way so the Holy Spirit could shine through. Similarly, words were to be vehicles for truth, not for lies (hence no double standards for public speech, no oaths in the courtroom) nor for idolatries (hence no days and months named for pretender-gods). Even some of our humour is based on this "plain" concept of bald truth. "A flock of white sheep," says one Quaker passenger on a train to the other, pointing out the window. "Yes, they're white ... at least on this side," responds the other.

The word "torture" has been a fine example of plain language. Now, thanks to our nation's administration, even the word is being tortured, and I have lost my sense of humour. In the service of the latest imperial presidential philosophy, the White House spokesman is put into the impossible position of denying the plain and obvious facts: his bosses want the freedom to go beyond the boundary that the Geneva Conventions have set. [Continued here]

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


If you haven't yet discovered the world of Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig, it's worth checking him out on curly flat and elsewhere on the web. What I like about him, apart from his often dry humour, is that he manages to puncture the self-regard of human beings (especially in their 'religious' mode) with knowing gentleness, and to point towards a depth of experience which is fully funded by a Christian perspective but able to speak well beyond those bounds -- because it is about life, not loyalism.

So I was delighted and a little surprised to see that Rowan Williams, in his wise presidential address to the General Synod of the Church of England (an occasion more likely to induce depression than hope for many of us, but well documented by Thinking Anglicans) decided to quote a typical prayer from Leunig at the end of his peroration:

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.

God help us to find our confession;
The truth within us which is hidden from our mind;
The beauty or ugliness we see elsewhere
But never in ourselves;
The stowaway which has been smuggled
Into the dark side of the heart,
Which puts the heart off balance and causes it pain,
Which wearies and confuses us,
Which tips us in false directions and inclines us to destruction,
The load which is not carried squarely
Because it is carried in ignorance.

God help us to find our confession.
Help us across the boundary of our understanding.
Lead us into the darkness that we may find what lies concealed;
That we may confess it towards the light;
That we may carry our truth in the centre of our heart;
That we may carry our cross wisely
And bring harmony into our life and our world.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

A new opinion poll conducted by the BBC suggests a persistence of religious belief in the UK, a growth in outright secularism, and widespread ignorance of other people’s convictions among different faith communities.

It also indicates that while a fifth of people in the UK feel less positive about Islam since the London bombings in July 2005, the view of the majority is unaffected.

Commissioned for BBC News 24’s Faith Day, the poll of a representative sample of adults across the country examines how religious belief is continuing to impact British identity. (Continued on Ekklesia)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


... so that the truth will out, though not if you force its meaning or try to possess or twist it to your own ends. It's manna, after all. As Simone Weil suggests, in an exposition that becomes slowly more meaningful to me:

We do not have to understand 'new things', but by dint of patience, effort and [proper] method to come to understand with our whole self those truths which are evident.

The most commonplace truth, when it floods the whole being, is [therefore] like a revelation.

We [also] have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will. The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles... What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry or the solution of a problem?...

Inner supplication is the only way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter [in hand]...

Attention [to reality], taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. (Adapted from Gravity and Grace)

As for the methodological part - well, broadly speaking, epistemology models ontology. Or to put it another way, the true nature of something, in both its apparent availability and non-availability to us, conditions the appropriate means by which we might patiently, experimentally, gradually get to 'know' it.

In the case of an object or the relation of objects this is relatively straightforward. In the case of persons, not at all straightforward. And in the case off God, strictly speaking, it is impossible. For as Weil also explains:

We have to believe in a God who is like the true God in every respect, except that [this God we believe in] does not exist, [because] we have not yet reached the point where God exists.

How we 'know God', then, the true God who is beyond our capacity to exist, is by learning deeds of love, companionship, justice, peace and compassion -- not by metaphysical speculation or by seeking to exercise demonstrative power. This is so because God is love rather than will, excess rather than essence, gift rather than possession, act rather than being, possibility rather than prescription.

This is also why 'killing for God' (the most ancient and modern religious disease) is in fact the ultimate act of non-belief, against which atheism is the highest, most Christlike virtue.

Jesus was 'killed for God'. That is, he was killed by the religion of power, and in this event the lie at the heart of religion was exposed -- the lie which keeps us from the true God who awaits us as love beyond vengeance.

Waiting for the 'more' that is God is essential if we are not to foreclose truth in our procedures. In this way 'faith' (loving expectation) is not an antonym to reason, but a condition of its very reasonableness.

This, I think, is why St Paul and those around him needed to speak of the indivisibility of knowledge and love in the transforming economy of divine communion (Colossians 2.2, Ephesians 3.19, etc.).

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, November 14, 2005


Among the many good things in the Community Relations Council (CRC) evaluation of the role of church-based peacemaking initiatives in Ireland (Beyond Sectarianism - The Churches and Ten Years of the Peace Process - *.PDF download) is the contribution [excerpt below] from Geraldine Smyth OP, a lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics. I first spotted this in the recently revamped Corrymeela magazine - the journal of the extremely worthwhile Corrymeela Community - which now definitely ranks alongside Fortnight and Shared Space as a 'must read'. See also this article, A Time To Heal (faith and politics), and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland.

"Violence cannot deliver peace, and the self-defeating mechanisms of the sacral power of cultural religion which keeps sectarianism in place need to be exposed and repudiated. Churches in Ireland must keep scrutinizing their own life... It is imperative that we all discover how we collude in tolerating violence - through segregated religious and social practice, and through clinging to identity-forming symbol structures which feed ancient rivalries through appeals to distorted memories of biblical chosenness as the basis of exclusion of others... Surely the churches have a vital role in shaping alternative, open spaces where ideas are never beyond question and the fresh air of dialogue can circulate, where experimental moves are envisaged and pilot projects undertaken - whether in secular life, through the arts, civic politics, education or community development - or within and between religious communities."

Incidentally, David Stevens, leader of the Corrymeela Community (and before that long-term general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches) has made a comment about religious hatred legislation, which has a particular history in Northern Ireland.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, November 13, 2005


In a different tenor to Gary Younge's necessarily provocative perspective, there's a thoughtful article (France and the Muslim myth) from the Observer's European editor, Jason Burke, looks at the fears and half-truths surrounding the more than two weeks' worth of rioting that began in the smouldering ghettos of Paris. As he points out, the underlying issues are global. But to complete the picture he needs to say more about the travails of an economically reductionist globalisation, and the aspirations of traditional societies faced by change. Some of the latter issues are mentioned in Rowan Williams' interesting new piece on 'respect', probing behind the latest buzz-word. The coverage and discussion on Pickled Politics has been helpful, as ever.

Meanwhile, this from a briefing on religion and state in France, on the BBC Religion and Ethics site: Many people believe that the French model of a secular state is not working. French ethnic minorities are very much aware of the disparity between them and white-French citizens. The riots of October 2005 reflect how aggrieved minorities feel. They feel victimised because of their culture, because of their colour and because of their religious orientation. For these minority groups, there is no space for a dual-identity that incorporates French-ness and religion.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Saturday, November 12, 2005


"Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." Wendell Berry

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Friday, November 11, 2005


Armistice Day 2005

T]he ending of sacrifice [through Christ's death] means that we [Christians] don't continue to sacrifice other people to make the world come out all right... We've been given all the time in the world to announce that God would not have God's kingdom wrought through violence. That's good news. It's hard news, but it's good news. Stanley Hauerwas

Some further references: WCC Decade to Overcome Violence and build a culture of peace; White Poppies and the controversy over them; Jim Wallis interviews Hauerwas on Christian nonviolence; Christians explore links between doctrine and violence; advocates: Pax Christi and Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

"Just up the road from Verdun, where military incompetence and slaughter almost literally bled the French army dry [in the First World War], is the Douamont Ossuary. Here the bones of 130,000 unknown young men gather dust and an occasional glance from a passing tourist. Above them the marbled hall, which echoes even to the footfall of trainers, is bathed with blood-red light from the stained-glass window. Here, in a dark alcove ignored by most, is the statue of Silence which in 1919 stood plainly outside the front door of the provisional ossuary. Slightly bigger than life-size, the figure of a woman with a shawl over her head holds a silencing finger to her lips. The message – that the truth about the futility of the war is best not uttered – is hard to miss. Now, lost in its alcove’s shadows, even this 84-year-old injunction is fading from sight."
(from Reclaiming the Silence)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, November 10, 2005


No religion [or ideology] which is narrow and which cannot satisfy the test of reason will survive [a] coming reconstruction of society in which the values will have changed and in which character, not possession of wealth, title or birth, will be the test of merit. Mohandas Gandhi.

This is true. Except that the current revaluation we are undergoing -- through forms of globalism and localism over-determined by economic competitiveness -- may in fact be elevating riches, celebrity and power over all other posibilities of human becoming. In which case the character we need to have modelled for us also has to be one which can 'keep faith', remain patient, and recognise hope beyond neurosis. This is the calling of common, as opposed to sentimental, 'sainthood': if by the word 'saint' we mean a person (like Dorothy Day, say) who might simply help us to become clearer-sighted about what it means to be a companion of Jesus in the saeculum. On which see also Vitor Westhelle, 'Crises of Society, Crises of the Church: Toward an Eschatological Reading of the Saeculum,' in Communion, Community and Society: The Relevance of the Church, Wolfgang Greive, ed., (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation), pp. 97-109, 1998.

Nb. The CTBI booklet, in print but hard to obtain, is a local church resource I contributed to in 2001-2. Not much else around on that theme, sadly.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Perhaps the most alarming feature of contemporary social, cultural and religious debate – in a world marked by the reduction of politics towards competing certainties – is that it continually confounds our attempts to construct, or believe in, the possibility of workable consensus. Maybe the problem, however is that we are conceiving of consensus as the displacement of conflict rather than its refiguration. Danah Zohar, in The Quantum Society (1994) offers as alternative account:

Inside me, inside each of us, there is an infinite range of potential selves waiting to be evoked through relationship to others. The other is my opportunity, my necessity for growth. The otherness of the other, his or her difference, is a possibility sleeping within myself. I need the Muslim to be a Muslim the Christian to be a Christian, the Jew to be a Jew (1) . I need to be me, to hold to my values, and I need you to hold to yours… [A]greeing to disagree is something very fundamental indeed. That is the agreement upon which we can build our pluralistic consensus.” (1) And equally needs humanists to be humanists, and so on.

Or, to put it another way, it is the basis upon which we can construct a usefully difficult politics based on honest contention rather than war or terror. But it still requires a prior agreement that human beings are valuable above and beyond any ideology which demands them to be a disposable asset – something which can be affirmed through a wide range of traditions, and which therefore has to be argued persuasively and loudly by those who otherwise disagree.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Leo Tolstoy once observed that “food for myself is a material issue, but food for my neighbour is a spiritual issue.” In the deeper regions of Christian practice, ‘spirituality’ is not about forsaking the material world, it is about working for its transformation through communal transparency to the love of God. Far from legitimating escape into a private realm of piety, this means breaking down the (often distinctly ‘material’) barriers between persons, which in biblical terms are seen as making us resistant to the divine invitation to “life in all its fullness”. That is also a challenge to the Christian church, which has often employed ‘the sacred’ to escape from, or demonize, ‘the secular’.

Tom Best is a US Disciples of Christ minister who has worked on ‘faith and order’ issues for the World Council of Churches for many years, and is involved in preparations for the next WCC Assembly in Brazil, February 2006. In a recent circular, he tells a story that makes it plain why ecclesiology - how each church understands itself and its relation to other churches - is crucial for the life and integrity of the Gospel in the world.

“It [concerns] an elderly parishioner in Ghana, whose village was fed by the priest of a neighbouring village during a famine. When the famine was over, she went to the neighbouring village to thank the people there for what they had done.

“But when she attended the priest's church to greet and thank him personally, she was unable to take communion because their respective churches did not agree on some points. So the woman went to her bishop and asked the following question:

“‘How can we share the material food which keeps us from starving, and not share the spiritual food which Christ himself offers us? I think when Christ comes again, he will feed us himself - and then we will do what is right!’”

In a disarmingly simple way, she had identified the flaw in church practices which ‘disincarnate’ their religious actions and symbols, rendering them contradictory and impotent as vehicles of transformation.

To put it Tolstoy’s way: what breaks down the wall between liturgy and life, and what makes an everyday piece of bread ‘spiritual food’, is that it is used to generate life for all and to show us that true sustenance is indivisible - rather than simply satisfying some private, self-enclosed desire.

By those standards, what passes for ‘spiritual’ in the religious realm is often nothing of the sort, while what passes for irreligion elsewhere may tell us more about the life of God than endless pieties. This is what comes through with life-changing force is Jesus’ ‘Samaritan moment’, his famous story of an outsider who turns the tables on those using religion to bolster a false understanding of their own goodness, while wholly failing to recognise God in the material shape of their neighbour.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Monday, November 07, 2005


"To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God. As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put [God] into a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings... [C]onverting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centred monologue to a God-centred dialogue." (Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome)

"If you want to know whether someone is truly religious, don't listen to what they say about God. Listen to what they say about the world." (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I don't know if I've ever mentioned this before on FinS. Given its apparent remoteness from what this blog is supposed to be about, I probably haven't. Anyway, I'll say it, and you can make the connection or not. Charlie Brooker is a quintessential evil genius. By which I mean someone who affectionately traduces the insanity of media-driven culture with his vicious-but-fair sense of humour, not the kind of person who goes around invading countries or stringing people up by their genitals. Important to clear that one up.

Now Brooker's weekly Screen Burn column ("television with its face torn off" -- collected into a fab book last Christmas) is being supplemented in the Berliner-format Guardian by a weekly column called 'Supposing', where his gloriously odd mind is given the freedom to roam over life's manifold peculiarities. What makes it work is a unique combination of genuine empathy, unrestrained scorn and sheer dadaism - a real antidote to things that, er, need a real antidote. Friday's piece was about the search for the perfect excuse.

Q: When is a lie not a lie? A: When it's an excuse. I love excuses. They represent the human imagination at its finest. A good excuse hovers somewhere between plausible and absurd - credible enough to be thoroughly believable, daft enough to sound like it couldn't possibly have been invented. It's important to choose your excuse carefully. [cont'd...]

See? Evil genius. And so much better than bombing people to make them good, without any obvious sense of irony. (On a related issue, see Giles Fraser on Blessed Are The Jokers.)

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Saturday, November 05, 2005


A couple of years ago there was a small burst of (rightful) outrage when some burghers of Lewes in East Sussex, a historic site of several waves of religious persecution, hit upon the vile idea that Guy Fawkes Night might be a good occasion to burn an effigy of a Romany camp. And this at a time when nasty propaganda against travellers and asylum seekers was being whipped up again in the media. What shocked me at the time was how few people took this seriously -- or recognised that the 5 November is a 'celebration' which readily lends itself to such malevolent purposes. So it was entirely appropriate for Justin Champion, Professor of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, to rehearse the ghastly 1605 saga in the Guardian on Friday ('The flames of hate'). This has produced a strong reaction from some correspondents ('No faith left in the Guy'), including an accusation of historical inaccuracy from one person apparently unfamiliar with the Act of Uniformity and the scale of anti-Catholic repression at the time of the gunpowder plot. Slightly dubious parallels with modern terrorism are also being drawn all round. Tomorrow's Observer, in timely fashion, reviews a clutch of relevant popular histories of the period. The contemporary point, it seems to me, is not to overdose on hindsight or to spoil a good bit of firework fun. But recognising the pain of the story we inherit, and determining not to repeat it by unveiling its uncomfortable echoes in later modern Europe, is surely a good thing. This is Champion's point, even if he has over-dramatized it. We should not avoid or sanitise the past, but reshape it in the present. Given the proximity of the not-so-glorious fifth to Diwali, a celebration of life and light over death and evil, maybe we could begin to do away with 'guys' and see in the festival and ritual a fresh blaze of humanitarian hope.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Friday, November 04, 2005


I was reminded by something I was reading on the web the other day about the disturbing concurrence of some militantly recidivist Christians and Muslims that the suffering incurred in recent earthquakes is 'divine punishment'. This is about as obscenely wrong as you can get, theologically. The modern sensibility is, of course the reverse - to ask how love-made-flesh can be accounted for in terms of of such events. This from Rowan Williams' Writing in the Dust (Hodder, 2001), in the aftermath of 9/11.

Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.

[P]erhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John [9. 1-16], Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way. Who is being punished, the man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt.

Jesus declines; guilt is irrelevant, and all that can be said is that this blindness is an opportunity for God’s glory to become manifest. The meaning is not in the system operated by the disciples, but in the unknown future where healing will occur. As the story proceeds, we see how the fact of healing becomes a problem in turn, because it does not fit the available categories; an outsider, a suspected heretic, has performed it. The blind man is again faced with people, this time the religious authorities, who want him to accept a meaning imposed by others, and he resists. It is this resistance, which proves costly for him, that brings him finally to faith.What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence.

We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Building Bridges of Hope - a 'living laboratory for changing churches' - brings together an extraordinary assortment of people from a wide variety of Christian traditions. It is supported by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and aims to research and support fresh pathways for church vitality in a post-Christendom setting -- not least through personal accompaniment. Yesterday and the day before I was blogging live from the fourth BBH 'Future Church' gathering. More material will go up over the weekend. This was a return o my former stomping ground (I worked for CTBI for nine years, and was involved in the development of this project).

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


There's no denying that the Church of England can put on a good show, as we saw at St Paul's yesterday. But to what ends and for whom? The occasion was dignified, as it should be, but it is still painful that in a ceremony to commemorate the lives of those killed in the 7/7 London bombings, people of a number of faiths and none, so many voices were passed over by the particular form of 'inclusiveness' which the Established Church chooses -- a walk-on role for other faith communities, and none for those of non-religious or humanist convictions. Our gaff, our rules. The way of Jesus? You'd have a hard time convincing me. The subversive goodness of the Samaritan was barely acknowledged.

Even so, Rowan Williams has a genuine humility and a way with words which often communicates beyond the limits of a 'grand occasion'. His address was spoken out of deep Christian convictions (it is vital that we speak as who we are), while also evoking space for others in a way that was more than token politeness -- as he showed by his opening remarks, and in a variety of references which demonstrated, as one mourner put it, "genuine empathy" for those who might be seeing and experiencing things rather differently in their moment of anguish. The full text is here. I've chosen the following excerpt:

"If it were true that one victim would be as good as any other, which is what the terrorist believes, the human world would be a completely different place, unrecognisable to most of us. We are here grieving, after all, because those who so pointlessly and terribly died were, each one of them, precious, non-replaceable. And those who suffered injury and deep trauma and loss are likewise unique, their minds and hearts scarred by this suffering. Time gives perspective and may bring healing; but the trauma of violence, and even more the death of someone we love makes a difference that nothing will ever completely unmake. The poet W.H. Auden captures this sense of injuries that never really heal as he writes of the biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents –

Somewhere in these unending wastes of delirium is a lost child, speaking of Long Ago in the language of wounds.

Tomorrow, perhaps, he will come to himself in Heaven.

But here Grief turns her silence, neither in this direction, nor in that, nor for any reason.
And her coldness now is on the earth forever.

"The loss by violence of a loved person leaves always that chill, that silence. We know there really is a tomorrow; religious believers are confident that there is a ‘last awakening’ to the face of God. But how very weak and trivial a thing our human love would be if the ‘language of wounds’ did not haunt us, speaking of a unique face and voice and personality.

"But that is why even our grief on an occasion like today becomes an action that is prophetic, challenging, an action that resists terror. To those who proclaim by their actions that it doesn’t matter who suffers, who dies, we say in our mourning, ‘No. There are no generalities for us, no anonymous and interchangeable people. We live by loving what’s special, unique in each person. Everyone matters.’ "

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I must confess to being a Hallowe’en curmudgeon. Not, I hasten to add, one of those antsy Christians who get steamed up about festive naughtiness corrupting our children into the devil’s ways… more someone who’s fed up enough with consumeritis to think that training kids to go and get money off strangers through petty menace isn’t a great idea – I mean, we have professional advertisers for that, don’t we? Not that the two are linked only by dubious sales techniques. Hallowe’en is now big business, a kind of neo-religious version of well-established tinsel-fests like Christmas. What will they think of next?

So this year, once again, our household battened down the trick-or-treat hatches, raised a glass to one of the real All Saints, smiled at the agenda-grabbing ‘toxics are the new dark forces’ World Wildlife Fund initiative, and took to the alternative of a good book. A volume I’d recommend right now is also, as it happens, about spooks and devilish details – but in this case those surrounding MI5 and MI6. Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers (The Book Guild, 2005) is Annie Machon’s account of the trials and tribulations which she and her partner David Shayler endured in the wake of his being jailed for breaches of the Official Secrets Act over issues surrounding the British bombing of Libya in 1986. It contains disturbing allegations about the security forces and raises important broader issues of public interest. But it has largely been ignored by the mainstream media. I’m pleased to be a member of the same union as Annie and David (the National Union of Journalists), and enjoyed a chat with them after a public meeting in Brighton a year or so ago. They are brave and tenacious people. Alan slingsby has an article about the book ('Secrets no-one wants') in the latest issue of The Journalist. [Machon radio interview]

As for All Hallows, more on that to follow...

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety