Saturday 22 March 2014

It's Not Enough

File:Bombed out vehicles Aleppo.jpg
Aleppo, 2012
"Within the world the way it is, some policing will always be necessary; policing will sometimes involve restraint; restraint will sometimes involve violence. Not to admit this is to risk colluding with the bullies who are waiting in the wings for good people to remove controls."
Tom Wright, Creation, Power and Truth, p 64
It's not enough to simply say that some ruler, or government, or other authority is corrupt and abuses its power, so it should be removed. We live in a fallen world and all authorities are prone to do that to a greater or lesser extent. If you remove authority and allow anarchy to take its place the result is all too often an illustration of just how evil human nature can get.

Syria is a recent illustration of this. Before March 2011 Syria was under a long-term Emergency Law, which allowed extensive government oppression. Over the period from spring 2011 to summer 2012, with extensive western encouragement, unrest and protest escalated into full-scale civil war. An oppressive climate transformed into an out-of-control fratricidal bloodbath, with enormous suffering and no sign of any sort of long term solution arising out of the mess. Not to mention all the foreigners coming in and further destabilising the situation.

Of course, not everybody sees this is a bad thing: the Syrian civil war alters the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran - one a western ally, the other not - as well as leaving serious instability on the borders of Russia. Would anyone, politician or newspaper owner, see this as in any way justifying the evil of an unnecessary civil war? Of course they would, we live in a fallen world.

Tom Wright's quote above was originally in the context of the need for some form of trans-national policing, which can be seen across the board as fair and effective. The US and UK have no credibility in that respect, especially in the Middle East, and have done no good to the authority of the UN in the process.

It's not enough to simply change the ruling class and expect anything to change for the better. Change has to start amongst the people: in civil institutions, in people working together for the common good. Change has to start with conversation and cooperation not with violence. If the authorities are too rigid then change may well eventually involve destruction and violence, but only as a last resort, and only when there is a civil society which can step in to rebuild and continue, speedily and without anarchy.

It looks as though Egypt has fallen at this hurdle - they failed to distinguish between true democracy, which involves a range of civil institutions with checks and balances, and a winner-takes-all majority rule, leading them straight back to yet another military coup (strongly backed by US and Israeli interests, it seems).

It's not enough to say "something must be done" and pressure governments into unhelpful interventions. It certainly isn't helpful for foreigners to get involved directly in another country's internal conflicts - a civil war already has too many factions fighting one another, without bringing in ignorant outsiders to further stir things up.

What would be helpful would be to support strong governance at a grassroots level, to promote fairness and equality internationally - not treating countries as pawns in global power games - and to find better ways of addressing conflicting needs and demands without violence.

To put it another, arguably more religious, way: we need to support justice and peace, whilst recognising that we live in a fallen world. In a Christian context 'justice' is always restorative justice - restoring creation to the way it was made to be - not retributive justice, which has little or nothing to do with peace.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

12 Years A Slave

12 years a slave
Quite a moving story, but I'm not sure what the point of the film really is.

12 Years A Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State, who, in 1841,  is kidnapped and sold as a slave in the Southern USA. He's beaten and abused then, after 12 years, he is set free again (given the title, I don't think that counts as a spoiler). There is a lot of whipping, dwelt on in a manner reminiscent of Mel Gibson's Passion, and a certain amount of abusive sex. Quite why it only has a 15 certificate is a bit of a mystery.

The movie is based on a true story: one that happened in the 1840's, which was a very important story to tell back then. Even after 1865, when slavery was legally abolished in the USA, the story would still have been important in showing why abolition was necessary. But why at the beginning of the 21st century? Does anyone seriously still think that slavery was a good and reasonable institution? If they did, would they watch this film?

I am part of a housegroup which will be looking at this film over the next few weeks, so maybe I'll have better ideas after that. In the meantime, a few thoughts:-

The first point is that it makes a powerful and dramatic story. Not much happens, but it still paints a vivid and painful picture. A picture of long ago, but a truthful picture nonetheless.

The second is that, like the Holocaust and the First World War, slavery in the USA remains a painful but vital part of a people's history, which should not be forgotten. The original book was a very important historical document which dovetailed well with other accounts of slavery at the time, written from the perspective of an educated man who was 'on the inside'.

Thirdly, although legalised slavery has been abolished in the West (Pakistan and other countries still practise forms of indentured labour, which is essentially the same), illegal slavery still continues. The slavers may not comfort themselves with dubiously interpreted religious texts any more, but they are still active. Also, the underlying racism and dehumanising of 'the other' are far from over. In the USA racism around their black president is explicit; here in the UK it tends to hide behind other masks.

I guess the biggest take-home message of the film is that a human being is a human being, made in the image of God, never 'property', never disposable, always to be respected, always to be treated according to the Golden Rule: how would you want someone to behave if the situation were the other way around.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Takedown Festival 2014

Takedown 2014 Schedule
If you're going to a day-long rock festival, it's a really bad idea to be exhausted before you even start. That's the mistake our daughter and I made before Takedown 2014 yesterday, and it did mean we ended missing quite a lot, just trying to recoup our energies.

Takedown is a one-day festival, hosted by Southampton University's Student Union, featuring mostly up-and-coming rock bands. It showcased an amazing number of young bands over the afternoon and evening (click the graphic above to see the programme), for a very reasonable price.

Two bands we particularly wanted to see were The Dirty Youth - who we had never seen before, although I did help to crowd-fund the DVD of their last tour - and Dendera, who are a local Southampton band - we have seen them before a few times, but they say they are working on new material, which we were keen to see.

If you look at the programme you can see that we had a problem: The Dirty Youth were due to finish at 5:50, whilst Dendera were to start - on a different stage - at 5:45. Then The Dirty Youth hit technical problems during their sound check, so they were at least ten minutes late starting. In spite of sound problems, though, it was a really good set, which we got to see from right in front of the stage.

After the gig, BlackLin and BlackSar got their picture taken with Danni, which they were really chuffed about. We gave up on Dendera and went to the cafe, where we got to talking with some of the Dirty Youth stage-crew, and later got some posters signed by two more members of the band (Phil & Leon). So that side of the festival was really good. We'll just have to look out for the next local Dendera gig and see them there instead.

In the meantime we also got to see some bands we'd either never heard of or never seen live before. Western Sand were one I'd never heard of, although they have some decent YouTube clips so we had a look shortly after we arrived. I was very impressed: they sounded to me like a kind of 21st Century reboot of Bon Jovi; heavier and less pop. One to keep an eye out for, I think.

BlackSar was looking forward to seeing Fearless Vampire Killers, but they turned out to be a disappointment. Skarlett Riot were decent, although as another female-fronted rock band playing just before The Dirty Youth they suffered in comparison. Ghouls were fun - basically heavy Ska - although I'd had enough by the end of their set. Kids In Glass Houses were another band BlackSar had heard on TV ... and another disappointment - although by then, to be honest, we were so tired they'd have had to be really good to keep our attention. We skipped the two headline bands and went home early, shattered.

Food was poor, organisation seemed decent, the range of bands was excellent (within their target genres), and we heard some good music, so overall a very good day. Now we're all wrecked, but it was worth it.

"Rise Up, join the revolution"

Sunday 9 March 2014

For All
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you ...
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
There is a thread running all through the Bible which, in its day, was absolutely revolutionary. So much so that these days it hardly seems exceptional at all. Sometimes it's even practised!

Way, way back, when gods were tribal, or at most national, God calls Abraham to leave his home and to go where He sends him. God says that He will bless Abraham's descendants, but also says He will bless the rest of the world through them.

Gods didn't do that back then. A tribal god was there to look after their chosen tribe, a national god to look after their nation ... if they felt like it, if the correct rituals and sacrifices had been given. Yet here is this (apparently new) god saying He has chosen His people to bless all the other tribes, all the other peoples too.

In many ways the Old Testament is the story of the Israelites determinedly not doing that. But also it is the story of their prophets reminding them, again and again, that this was their special calling: to bless others. Even deadly enemies - consider Jonah's unwilling mission.

Then Jesus comes along:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
It's the whole world that God loves, not just the Jewish bit, not only religious people, or any other sort of aristocracy, but everyone.

Jesus was put to death, and rose again, and then there was Pentecost. Suddenly, not only is God wanting to bless all the world through His people, but He is wanting to include everyone as part of His people. Jews and foreigners, Samaritans, even an Ethiopian eunuch, all invited to become God's people, nobody excluded.

Probably the first written of the documents now called the New Testament was Paul's letter to the Galatians. In that Paul spells out in some detail that all these distinctions and all these exclusions are redundant in Jesus. Jesus isn't just for Jews or Greeks, not just for Europeans, Americans, or Africans, he is for all the world; he is not just for men or just for women, not just for those who are gay nor those who are straight, he is for everyone; not just the rich, nor just the poor, nor even just the middle classes, but all people are invited into God's Kingdom, all people are offered a blessing through Jesus.

So that is the job of Jesus' church: to offer a welcome to all people in Jesus' name, and to offer a blessing to everyone around them. Some local churches do that well, others fall short ... such is life. May God bless you and all whom you care for, this week and into the future.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Church Going?
Not Church ... just a building
I was not brought up in church: my parents were not churchgoers. I was brought up agnostic, which hardened to atheism in my teens, and I only came to faith after I was 21.

In Caversham churches, at least, this seems to be very much a minority position. Most churchgoers here seem to have grown up going to church. Likewise, these days, most non-churchgoers have never regularly been to church, and have had little exposure to church culture.

It makes a difference. I’ve been actively involved in churches for more than 30 years now, but I still find a lot of what goes on there alien and alienating. The somewhat separatist culture, the fixation on rules, what John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, calls the ‘sacred-secular divide’ – the idea that what goes on inside church buildings and church structures is, somehow, more special to God than what goes on outside. Then there’s the weird time-warps: 19th-century, 17th-century, medieval – some of it can convey a rootedness in worshipping history, but most of it is little more than anachronistic escapism, it seems to me.

Not to mention the way many churches obsess about sex and about controlling people’s private lives (not so much at St John’s, where I now worship, to be fair, but definitely at other Caversham churches), very much contrary to Jesus’ own attitudes. In fact that’s an important issue: the rather obvious gap between the words, attitudes and actions of Jesus, on the one hand, and the words, attitudes and actions of those who claim to follow him, on the other.

So, when people say – as they do – that they are spiritual but not religious, I can see where they are coming from. When people say they admire and respect Jesus, but are not interested in institutional religion, I can relate to that. And when people say that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, it is undeniably true – a basic knowledge of British church history covers that, albeit with a twist.

And yet ... and yet ... it is also true that from the beginning, following Jesus was something to be done in company, in a supportive community of fellow-followers. A mixture of very different people, sharing joys and sorrows. The blind supporting the lame, whilst the lame guides the blind. People who can bring God’s comfort when God Himself seems far off – he’s not, but when life gives us a kicking then He can seem that way. A hand, a kindly word, a listening ear ... in some US churches there is a tradition of taking food around to someone who is going through a rough time: practical, kindly and comforting. Also, the reality is that we are here to make a difference, and that is so much easier when we work together, rather than alone.

So, yes it is true that you don’t have to be part of a church to follow Jesus – I know people who do just that; but they are better, stronger men and women than I. But when it comes to Christian community, like it or not, institutional churches are the only show in town ... at least here in Caversham.