Wednesday, April 30, 2008


"The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programmes, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God's perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it. Nor is it some universal idea of love, but rather the love of God [made known] in Jesus Christ, a love genuinely lived, that does this." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross

Monday, April 28, 2008


"Courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair." -- Rollo May

Sunday, April 27, 2008


(This one was prompted by yet another infuriating radio programme.) Since the recent rash of media-fuelled 'debate' about the reality or otherwise of God takes it for granted that the argument concerns the existence or non-existence of a 'thing' or 'being' that is part of a category of things or beings called 'gods' (about which non-sense, see section two of What difference does God make today?), it is worth being reminded that earlier thinkers worth their salt, like the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, spent a good deal of time patiently explaining why this is not plausible, let a lone desirable:

God is not an object beside objects and hence cannot be reached by renunciation of objects. God, indeed, is not the cosmos, but far less is God 'being minus cosmos'. God is not to be found by subtraction and not to be loved by reduction...[] God is to be discovered, if at all, in relation."

Wading through the internet, it becomes rapidly apparent that the loudest voices for or against 'religion' and its supposed 'object' are invariably ignorant of the long and subtle discussions of the past on such topics, or contemptuous of them (without necessarily knowing what they are contemptuous of), and that there is an automatic assumption that we know what we are talking about when we start to throw around such terms in relation to the divine. Which, invariably, we don't.

All of which reminds me of the comment attributed to irascible theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (I paraphrase, but I think it might be in Dispatches From the Front) and directed to his new students at Duke. "Welcome to my class. This is a liberal arts university, which means that someone will have already told you that you are here to make up your mind. I'm here to remind you that until you have spent time carefully listening to all the people and arguments I've been following for years, you haven't got a mind worth making up!"

This is profoundly true, but not popularly so in an environment where we assume that we know more than those who came before us, and where the conditions of debate are those we take as read. How I wish someone had said that to me 32 years ago. It might have made my journey from ignorance to very-slightly-less-ignorant a lot quicker.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


There are a number of interesting aspects to Rowan Williams' recent talk on The spiritual and the religious - is the territory changing? A ever, he has some creative things to say. But much more attention needs to be paid, I feel, to why 'organised religion' has so often veered in the opposite direction to the one that Williams (rightly) feels is more truthfully inherent in the claims of the Gospel, certainly. I know I would say this, but the missing element in the picture he gives is a clear commitment to a post-Christendom vision - one which envisages the church in theological and practical distinction from the kind of power games that it has played in the past and is still playing. He wants the benefits of this without looking at the institutional contradiction of his position.

It is hard for the head of an Established Church to do more than move around the edges of the post-Christendom argument it seems. As a friend astutely commented to me recently: "In contrasting religion at its best with more mediocre forms of spirituality, it seems to me that he is making the same mistake – albeit in a more nuanced form – as the militant atheists who write or comment on blogs [and] in the newspapers. Above all, he avoids confronting the issue of the power in faith communities." This includes the confrontation within such communities between liberating and constraining imaginations of what 'religion' and 'spirituality' (neither of which are my favourite words) mean, and how to relate to others - including those who are conceiving a journey of hope in a variety of post-religious terms. Hoped-for generosity is not enough.

Some of this will come up in the discussion I have this afternoon with the Fellowship of Reconciliation council in Oxford, I imagine, which is looking at peacemaking beyond Christendom. Here's a key part of Williams' argument, which I'd like to be true, but which needs considerably more work (as I have no doubt he is aware):

The better we understand the distinctiveness of religious claims, the better we understand the centrality within them of non-violence. That is to say, the religious claim, to the extent that it defines itself as radically different from mere local or transitory political strategies, is more or less bound to turn away from the defence or propagation of the claims by routinely violent methods, as if the truth we were talking about depended on the capacity of the speaker to silence all others by force. Granted that this is how classical communal religion has all too regularly behaved; but the point is that it has always contained a self-critique on this point. And that growing self-awareness about religious identity, which has been one paradoxical consequence of the social and intellectual movement away from such an identity, makes it harder and harder to reconcile faith in an invulnerable and abiding truth with violent anxiety as to how it is to be defended.

In short, as religion – corporate, sacramental and ultimately doctrinal religion – settles into this kind of awareness, it becomes one of the most potent allies possible for genuine pluralism – that is, for a social and political culture that is consistently against coercion and institutionalised inequality and is committed to serious public debate about common good. Spiritual capital alone, in the sense of a heightened acknowledgement especially among politicians, businessmen and administrators of dimensions to human flourishing beyond profit and material security, is helpful but is not well equipped to ask the most basic questions about the legitimacy of various aspects of the prevailing global system. The traditional forms of religious affiliations, in proposing an 'imagined society', realised in some fashion in the practices of faith, are better resourced for such questions. They lose their integrity when they attempt to enforce their answers; and one of the most significant lessons to be learned from the great shift towards post-religious spiritual sensibility is how deeply the coercive and impersonal ethos of a good deal of traditional religion has alienated the culture at large.

A bit more on England and St George... an attempt to see what the reaction might be to a series of cultural and campaigning events next year exploring the Saint as subversive.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Watching BBC TV's Question Time special on the London Mayoral election last night was a depressing experience (See my new LibCon column, Paddick stations? - which the Guardian kindly picked out in its 'best of the blogs' section). For a start, the Beeb decided that we didn't need to see the Green candidate, Sian Berry, who stands for a different set of values, and whose second preferences may well decide the final outcome. Then the whole thing was an adversarial charade: much sound and fury signifying little. This is modern media-driven politics. If I had a vote it would probably be Berry one and Ken Livingstone two. Boris Johnson is beyond a joke. [Fab YouTube clip alert]

Lest anyone think I am being unduly hard on the Lib Dems, I have an interview with their leader, Nick Clegg, in the May edition of the revamped Third Way magazine ("Christian comment on culture"), in which I think he comes out rather favourably. The TW 'high profile' slot aims to probe behind the public persona of a well-known figure and look at more personal influences, underlying convictions and so on. Inter alia, Clegg makes it clear that, contrary to press speculation, he's more of an agnostic than an outright atheist, and has respect for religious conviction oriented towards fairness and freedom. It's not available online, I'm afraid. But excerpts and out-takes will appear in due course, when I have cleared my permissions.

Talking of electoral politics. I used to be Labour at heart, but these days my vote floats between whichever candidate I think might inject a degree of principle and freshness into things, based on some practical notion of social justice and sustainability. Not voting has a place, too. The degeneration of the whole political system needs challenging in as many ways as possible - through alliances, associational and independent politics, participatory (rather than purely 'representational') forms of democracy, principled abstention, pressure from without, dialogue across the boundaries, and the strengthening of civil society... plus churches injecting a bit of redemption by acting as contrast societies, not conformist lumps or self-interest groups, please.

The electoral arena cannot be ignored, but it is not one in which I find deep convictions convincingly represented any more.

"Quite apart from the problems of the Christian church in contemporary Britain, the almost insoluble challenge for many charities [and NGOs] these days, competing as they have to for support, is how to persuade people by what are essentially market methods that they should take up a very non-market-minded position of committed involvement." - Rowan Williams

Thursday, April 24, 2008


"To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and be offended. To be human in the light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue." -- John Howard Yoder

Today in 2005 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was inaugurated as 265th pontiff, head of the 1.2 billion strong Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Benedict XVI. For what it's worth, my own assessment of the man remains in line with what I wrote at the time in After Absolutism: The world, the church and the papacy, partly in response to a none-too-flattering TV documentary called God's Rottweiler. Around the time of the Regensberg controversy in September 2006 I also wrote Christendom remains the Pope's real fallibility.

The other day there was a brief discussion of Benedict's profile and work so far, on BBC Radio 4. Author and broadcaster Joanna Bogle offered an almost euphoric defence of the man, and Lavinia Byrne, former sister of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, remained sceptical. Lavinia has every reason to balk at those (including Radical Orthodoxy-type Anglicans) who romanticise Benedict, or focus on certain aspects of his philosophy abstracted from his actual actions.

Ratzinger, as was, headed up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - John Paul II's 'theological enforcer' - when Lavinia's book Women at the Altar appeared. The 'disciplinary process' that followed was truly appalling, and all for the crime of thinking about women's ordination - something Benedict wishes to put off limits. Lavinia, who I followed in an editorial post at Heythrop College, and later at CTBI, never even got an audience with her inquisitor, nor a proper chance to put her case. Her book was subsequently pulped in the USA, after the Catholic publisher was ordered to do so.

Similar bullying has been meted out over the years to numerous scholars and writers who have raised critical issues arising from Catholic doctrine - including liberation theologian Leonardo Boff (for his fine book Church, Charism and Power), Hans Kung (Infallibility?), Sri Lankan priest and human rights advocate Tissa Balasuriya (Mary and Human Liberation). Jon Sobrino (Christology at the Crossroads), the late Jacques Dupuis (who wrote superbly on the theology of religions) and Roger Haight (Jesus Symbol of God). And that's just off the top of my head. Dupuis, a deeply faithful scholar, died a broken man a a result of the way he was treated.

This suppression of thought is inexcusable and deeply disturbing. It reflects a model of church and of ecclesial leadership which I believe is wholly at odds with the kind of practice needed in a Gospel community. We need to be accountable to one another, to the spirit of free enquiry and to the riches of the tradition. But not subject to threats and censorship. Without exception, all those I have mentioned are people with a passionate concern for the Christian message in the contemporary world, and some of them (Dupuis, Haight and Kung) are among the finest intellectuals of their time.

Jon Sobrino, who I had the honour of meeting briefly in the 1980s, has stared death in the face in El Salvador, and his work is thoroughly grounded in biblical thought and action. His accusers, by contrast, seem to have little grasp of the painful world out of which he writes - or, indeed, of what he has written.

“People ask me how I got to be a pacifist in the church. That’s easy. It’s so there are people around who can stop me killing other people when I’d like to. Which is quite often.” – Stanley Hauerwas, during a question and answer session.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


It's that time of year again. The one where those of us living south of a certain border, and west of another one, think about the complex weave of myth and history that shapes our national story. Or not, as the case may be.

This time last year I found myself in deep water with the Daily Mail after Ekklesia published a report, largely written by me, suggesting that the stories built up around the largely (possibly wholly) legendary figure of St George around the time of the Crusades were not the only ones - indeed, St George, who was probably Turkish, and is patron saint of many nations and regions other than England, was first known as a Christian citizen who laid down his arms to challenge the Roman Emperor's persecution of believers and others.

Not exactly a militarist of nationally exclusive icon, more a universal symbol of noble dissent, we suggested. Unsurprisingly, tabloid commentator Richard Littlejohn strongly disagreed, though there was no sign that he had read, let alone thought about, the issues. That's one of the things that happens with the stories we tell about our national inheritance. They become emotional ballast to suppress, rather than encourage, more difficult reflection.

This year artist Scott Norwood Witts has unveiled a thoughtful and moving painting called 'St George and the Dead Soldier' at the Catholic Cathedral in Southwark - where there is a week-long festival going on, as well as remembrance of William Shakespeare (whose day this also is) at the Anglican cathedral which was the bard's parish church of St Mary.

Norwood Witts says that ‘St George and Dead Soldier’ was stimulated by the current deployment of British forces overseas and also by the historical misrepresentation of St George. He comments: “The patron saint of soldiers and England is shown battle weary, identifying another fatality of war - exploding the contrived mythical identity developed during The Crusades, to reveal a man in mourning.”

The artist has previously exhibited at the American Church in London and the Carmelite Friary in Kent. Other commissions have included altarpieces at Dover Castle and the Royal Garrison Church at British Army HQ, Aldershot.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


"A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity." -- Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855.

The stand-off between hard-line religionists and hard-line secularists in Turkey is yet another example of an essentially phony war between two sets of ideologists unhelpfully claiming a monopoly over both their own traditions and one another, rather than seeking a pluralist path. The message that needs to be heard loud and clear is "it doesn't have to be this way". Adrian Pabst, who teaches theology and politics at the University of Nottingham, and collaborates with John Milbank and Philip Blond in developing the provocative Radical Orthodoxy line of approach to Christianity in public life, has written a very good piece for The National analysing Turkey's plight and signalling the alternative to non-productive confrontation.

The Kemalists are wrong to treat religion as a purely private phenomenon with no public import. They must recognise that all belief systems and social practices are political. They should look to the best traditions of secularism that separate state and mosque without divorcing religion from politics. In a modern Turkey that they purport to defend, rival values should be debated freely. Judicial or military intervention will merely push religion underground and contribute to the rise of fundamentalism — in that case, a repeat of Algeria’s bloody experience would be a distinct possibility.

For its part, the AKP cannot simply proceed with fundamental constitutional reforms that are seen as an assault on secularism. Erdogan and his allies are right to reconsider the legal provisions on insulting “Turkishness” that saw the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk prosecuted in 2007. Likewise, the AKP must tackle discriminatory policies against the Alevi, Kurds and Armenians and work towards their full integration into Turkish society.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Like the thousands who are out celebrating as I write, I am absolutely delighted that ex-bishop Fernando Lugo (pictured) has won the general election in Paraguay, his centre-left coalition terminating sixty years of corruption and elite dominance by the Colarado Party which once propped up General Alfredo Stroessner's systematically brutal dictatorship. What the victory will mean in terms of the immediate social and economic prospects of the very poorest, and of regional negotiations about a fairer deal for the country, has yet to be seen. There's a good, critical analysis here.

The task facing Lugo is indeed mountainous, given the grip of the wealthy and their political and military surrogates on Paraguay, the fragile and disparate coalition the president-elect heads, and the hugely raised expectations of indigenous people and those pushed to the margins for many years. But their new leader is a man of principle and determination, if not great experience in the tough arena of governance. Whether he will be able to resist or re-channel the economic and political constraints he faces is yet to be seen. There is a mixture of hope and cynicism in the air right now.

The response of the Catholic hierarchy, both inside the country and in the Vatican, has been predictably unpleasant. Lugo decided that he would have to leave his priestly role to pursue political change in favour of the poorest, but he did so out of deep commitment arising from the gospel. None of this has been acknowledged by conservative Church leaders, who have covertly sided with Colarado and have denounced Lugo for "abandoning Catholicism". He has been pointedly denied the laicisation he sought. It seems that Rome wishes to eliminate any sign of progressive or radical leanings within its leadership.

The treatment of Lugo calls to mind Pope John Paul II's finger-wagging condemnation of Fr Ernesto Cardenal, who took up a post as culture minister in the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua from 1979-90. By contrast, Church figures have been tolerated in their support for, or collaboration with, Latin American dictators. One priest even took charge of a section of the army in Colombia in the 1960s. But as soon as an alliance is forged between grassroots people's movements and clerics, the Vatican stamps down vigorously.

It's all very sad. Lugo was right to set aside his priestly ministry to follow a political vocation, and should be allowed to do so with honour. Many will see the continual thread of ordination in his move; namely his vocation to serve the poor (which is one of the vows a bishop makes).

As Andrew Nickson comments: "Lugo clearly represents a serious challenge to the status quo of Paraguay's traditional non-programmatic political culture, supported by powerful vested interests that arose during the Stroessner dictatorship and that have consolidated their privileges in the subsequent democratic transition." But he will need more than will power to bring about change.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


"Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination will come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth."
-- Hannah Arendt, Jewish political and moral philosopher

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Twittering politically. Simon Barrow, LiberalConspiracy, 19 Apr 08.

You thought Facebook was hip? Nah. The latest communications buzz, as of, like, weeks and weeks ago, is a web-based tool that uses instant messaging, SMS or a web interface to exchange quick, frequent updates on what you're up to. Or someone else, for that matter. With Gordon Brown’s PR people as the latest converts on his high profile US visit, the mainstream media is suddenly banging on endlessly about Twitter. But does instant info about who’s where, doing what, have any political significance? Or is it just so much digitized hot air? (See also Aaron Heath's comment.)

Friday, April 18, 2008


It's not every issue that Jesus appears on the cover of the historic left-wing weekly paper (now a magazine format) Tribune, whose famous past editors include Michael Foot. Indeed it has probably never happened before. But it did occur on 11 April 2008. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the cover in question - featuring a famous portrait of the cleansing of the Temple. The latest issue has the much less appealing visage of one Boris Johnson adorning it. Many of us sincerely hope that la Boris will not be the next elected Mayor of London come 1 May 2008. Sadly, I don't have a vote in that one, though I do regularly inhabit a room in the capital. However, I got taken off the electoral register due to not being there enough to count as resident. My landlord while I am away from Exeter is actually a candidate in the May local authority elections, so it was self-sacrificial of him to have me removed. Or perhaps he just doesn't trust me. But I digress. The Tribune topic which occasioned this unexpected visual delving into the New Testament was about the global credit crunch and capitalist crash-landings. Concerning all of which, in a tangential way, see Patrick Hynes' article on alternative finance and the estimable Oikocredit.

[Pic: Bernardino Mei, (c) Getty Center, Los Angeles, USA]

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Power to which people, exactly? Simon Barrow column on Ekklesia, 16 Apr 08.
In Britain, the primary instruments of defence against tyranny are the framework of checks and balances embodied in an unwritten set of legal arrangements, the independence of the Judiciary and Executive and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British Law. However, in recent weeks and months abrogation of many safeguards seems at least to have been contemplated by parliament. Some would say the problem goes much further. And there are theological resonances, too. Continued. [See also: Unlock Democracy]

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


My latest 'thinking aloud' piece for The Wardman Wire reflects on conflict and confusion in the world today, and suggests that the place to focus is on the human beings in the middle - and on working outwards from there. It also includes comment on ex-US president Jimmy Carter's pledge to talk to Hamas as part of his current humanitarian visit to Israel-Palestine, and suggests that even in the most bitter confrontation the problem has a face. One that cannot be reduced purely to politics, ideology, religion or non-religion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


"In order to swim you must take off all your clothes. In order to aspire to the truth you must undress in a far more inward sense, divest yourself of all your inward clothes, of thoughts, conceptions, selfishness. Only then are you sufficiently naked." -- Søren Kierkegaard

Monday, April 14, 2008


"What is constant [in the relations made possible by God]... is a love that can be called 'ecstatic.' * We must take leave of ourselves in order to approach the other and all the more so in order to welcome the other. The more spiritual the encounter with the other, the more complete the 'ecstasy'. By that, Christian faith means that 'God is love.' Of course God is infinite being, but only insofar as God totally gives away the divine being within Godself. Here is the most profound justification for the Trinitarian faith, a faith that confesses that the 'infinite' is 'exchange.' Moreover, not only is God 'self-exchange,' but God has willed a communication outside Godself (if one is permitted to speak this way). This communication can only be the offer of a covenant such that what exists between God and humanity will be the realization of what already exists in God." - Ghislain Lafont, A Theological Journey

"The call to renounce * doesn't negate the value of flourishing; it is rather a call to centre everything on God, even if it be at the cost of sustaining this unsubstitutable good; and the fruit of this forgoing is that it become on one level the source of flourishing for others, and on another level, a collaboration with the restoration of a fuller flourishing by God." - Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

These wonderful reflections come from Artur Rosman's florilegium on T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding - IV, which I cited the other day. A couple of further comments. First, I think Lafont means by 'ecstasy' (life beyond stasis) what Taylor means by 'the call to renounce' (reminding us of Jesus' challenging dictum that those who grasp at life will lose it, and only those who abandon such grasping will gain it - as gift). In this sense ecstasy, which like love is a condition of relation, not a "feeling" (as our superficially emotive culture designates it), also requires - or, rather, evokes - 'eccentricity', the capacity for existence beyond self-centredness. All of these things, Lafont points out, are embraced in the life of God, which is life-beyond-life creating the conditions for the liberation of our own living. This is what is at stake in a Christian theological account of God grounded in generative love, reciprocal love and disruptive love. Divine vocation is in this sense the action of calling into relationship that which resists, wounds or defies it, the hidden work of the 'constant garnerer'.

Second, I think it is more helpful (in the sense of 'less inaccurate'!) to talk of God as 'beyond being' (in the spirit of Jean Luc Marion's hors texte and Merlod Westphal's 'Divine Excess: The God Who Comes After' than it is to talk of God as 'infinite being', as if infinitising one of our most expansive categories gives us a handle on the divine. In this sense, to invoke God in prayer and action (which is all we humans can do, since we have no theory powerful enough to get anywhere near God, however much ardent believers and equally ardent disbelievers may wish otherwise) is to receive the reverberation of the transcendent in the midst (John V. Taylor). This reverberation looks 'for all the world' like unmerited grace, sacrificial love, unplanned forgiveness and life beyond measure - in case you were wondering. It is an overflowing, an excess of excesses. "God totally gives away the divine being within Godself [and beyond]" as Lafont puts it. This is what the Gospel of Jesus' undergoing God, at the point where we might go under, is all about.

[Pic: Mat Stapleton, 'paintbrush in cheek': A Slightly Transcendent Moment]

Sunday, April 13, 2008


"Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than to feel forgiven." (The chaplain in ER ).

I'm not an ER watcher myself, but the 'Atonement' episode was being watched in my household while I was writing an article. It involves a Catholic patient infected with inconsolable guilt for his past involvement in administering lethal injections at state executions. He has a row with a consolingly inclusive post-denominational chaplain; or, rather, he bawls her out because she has nothing to say to what he is confronting. It's very poignant. Neither the accumulated self-loathing of a certain kind of 'traditional' religiosity nor the morally evasive balm of spiritual self-therapy quite cuts it when the wounding is so deep. What is needed is redemption, which along with forgiveness is neither bargainable nor humanly manufacturable. It is a matter of a grace that is anything but cheap or easy, as the chaplain does realise underneath the protective veil of rhetoric. It also stands and falls by the reality or otherwise of the God beyond manipulative deity, which she doesn't, apparently. Her creed is her instincts. So is his, unfortunately. No one wins. Not that its about 'winning', mind.

(Apparently this clip has produced a bit of debate in certain church circles, albeit a rather bogus one, as Steve Knight points out.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008


There's a good 'Face to faith' article in the Guardian today, by the estimable Sunny Hundal (of Pickled Politics and Liberal Conspiracy, to which I contribute periodically) on Sikhism, ritual and the power of symbolic meaning. That opens up a whole fascinating topic ... but it also brings back specific memories. Sunny lives in Southall, which I've re-visited a couple of times lately. I lived there for nigh on six years in the 1980s. It was a very difficult phase of life for me, but the place is somewhere I love deeply.

The Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sabha gurdwara in Havelock Road (pictured) was a relatively modest converted dairy when I knew it, lying immediately opposite the back entrance of the Anglican church I used to attend, St John's. It was dramatically redeveloped, re-opened - as it happens - on my birthday in 2003 (30 March), and is now the largest Sikh temple outside India. It was fascinating to go there again and witness the dramatic changes first-hand. Extraordinarily, there were some people I knew working in the kitchen at St John's, too. The church itself is being refurbished.

I also visited old eating haunts, including a snack at Rita's Samosa Centre and veggie lunch at Sagoo and Takhar, still my favourite. I used to go there regularly to pick up some stuffed veg parathas on my way to see Southall FC at their old ground in Western Road. Now they are at Dormers Wells Leisure Centre, after huge problems which saw them drop back into a very minor football league and go into geographical exile. I watched them in the comparative glory days of the Isthmian League.

Oh yes. I also picked up some excellent marsala tea when I was in Southall (Indian food shopping is a wonder at the various emporia and small holdings), and Carla is now addicted!

Friday, April 11, 2008


The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

-- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding - IV

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Tremendous news today that the High Court has ruled that the Serious Fraud Office acted unlawfully in halting a corruption investigation into BAE Systems' arms deals with Saudi Arabia. The judgement is categorical and tough in condemning the SFO and the government for caving in to alleged threats from the Saudi regime that they would halt security cooperation if the probe and the threat of criminal proceedings went ahead. The judges described the SFO director's action on 14 December 2006 as a "successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom". You can't get much stronger than that.

The judicial review was brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House - to whom great credit is due for persistence in the face of massive corporate and international interests. Development agencies and the Christian network SPEAK have also been involved in work on BAE and arms trade issues. No doubt the government will, overtly or covertly, seek to resist calls for the re-opening of the SFO investigation, so the struggle goes on. But it is a landmark judgement, and attempts at an appeal look perilous.

Symon Hill of CAAT gave a good interview with Radio 4 this evening, but the BBC has not covered itself in glory with its initial reporting. Earlier this morning, before the verdict was handed down, it allowed defence industry apologist Francis Tusa (who happens to be son of John Tusa, managing director of BBC World Service from 1986-92) free rein to rubbish the idea that anything was at stake in the case. Extraordinarily, given what has been revealed in court, he auto-suggested that the SFO had to drop the case for lack of evidence and mocked the idea that BAE's reputation could be harmed because "business is booming" in the USA.

This didn't sound like proper journalism or 'analysis', as it was touted, but a pre-emptive PR effort towards damage limitation, blatantly taking advantage of the fact that the legal protocol barred CAAT or Corner House from doing interviews themselves before the judgment. After the High Court pronounced, both BAE and the SFO refused to comment, and Symon finally got his word. Tusa was also replaced by another commentator. The BBC has covered the case under the 'business' rubric and its online report provided a link to BAE and the Ministry of Defence, but not CAAT. A link to Corner House, which supports democratic and community movements for environmental and social justice, was subsequently provided, but its site was struggling to cope with the traffic by mid-evening. The Beeb's news website has also relegated the story, regarding a domestic interest rate cut as more newsworthy than the government capitulating to a foreign power over military and security issues.

I should declare an interest of my own here. Though I've had nothing to do with the BAE case (other than reporting it), I served on the Campaign Against Arms Trade national steering committee from 1978-1987 and was a volunteer in the late '70s, following on from research and writing on arms trade and development issues for a variety of outlets, including Middle East Magazine and the Latin America Bureau. I also attended several official military export exhibitions as a journalist in the 1980s, uncovering details of the British government's military collusion with regimes involved in major human rights abuses - including Iraq. CAAT does a great job, usually with little publicity. It is testimony to the importance and effectiveness of civic action in calling companies and governments to proper account.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Today, my late father's birthday, is also the 63rd anniversary of the execution of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis. As Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent and academic, comments: '[E]ven some of his fellow Lutherans did not realize at first how consistently Bonhoeffer lived out his creed. Immediately after World War II, pastors in Bielefeld opposed plans to have a street named after him. Bavaria’s Lutheran bishop Hans Meiser, himself a prominent anti-Nazi cleric, protested vigorously against a proposal to install a plaque commemorating Bonhoeffer as a “witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren” at Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was put to death only days before it was liberated by US forces. In Meiser’s opinion, Bonhoeffer’s resistance was “political, not religious”.'

I disagree with a number of aspects of Siemon-Netto's reading of Bonhoeffer, but he highlights very precisely the fault-line in the Christendom attempt to drive a false wedge between the spiritual and the secular; one that imperils the path of costly discipleship which Bonhoeffer mapped out in his forcibly fragmented life as much as in his necessarily fragmentary writings.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


In my latest Wardman Wire column, I look at the style and tenor of church engagement with public life and the realm of politics - arguing that Flexing the faith muscle in an overbearing way ends up being profoundly counter-productive. Truthful strength is not measured by the ability to shout the loudest, to demand attention, to moralise, or to seek special treatment. It resides instead in lived integrity, honesty within as well as without, seeking faithfulness ahead of 'success', and a hopeful realism about the place of the Christian community in wider society. None of this is easy. Which is why we need intellectual rigour, prayerfulness and each other.

Friday, April 04, 2008


From my latest article on OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom: "[W]hat kind of religion, what kind of mission and what kind of peace is [Tony Blair] really basing his aspirations on? Behind emollient words against extremism lies the chaos of Iraq, the ideology of “liberal interventionism” (which turns love of neighbour into bombing people to make them good) and a theology of superpower convenience." Continued here.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The recent row over 'free votes' (or not) on 'conscience issues' like the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill is in danger of obscuring the general need for a more open parliamentary system at Westminster; one that is less beholden to the whips and the party machines, and more amenable to independent, associational and dissenting political contributions. This is something I have raised in my latest contribution to OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom debate.