Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Segregation, Conquest or Reconciliation?

My previous post on the Pilling Report was not a comment on the different arguments in the debate about human sexuality. If you want to know about that or discuss arguments for or against then there are plenty of other blogs and forums out there. Instead my comments were actually about the more general principles of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence set against the backdrop of the debate on human sexuality within the Church of England. These principles, however, would be applicable in any sphere of conflict or disagreement.

In any contentious or controversial debate we will all have views and deeply held beliefs and it is impossible for anyone to be truly neutral on any subject. However, in a situation of conflict - whether it is political, religious, ethical, social, or related to class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity or simply just a difference between two individuals - the default human position is to attack the opposing position. When we feel that we are right this of course feels the most obvious solution: ‘the other person believes something outrageous - or is simply different - and I must defeat them and make them believe what I believe and behave as I behave.’

However, the human impulse to conquer and defeat those who are different - even if they hold views that we see as immoral - is always wrong. In any situation of conflict there are three options: segregation into tribes, destroying and conquering those who disagree or who are different, or learning to peacefully co-exist through active reconciliation. The first of these two options are easy but will ultimately lead to further hatred and in some situations to people losing their lives. The last is the most difficult.

That said, I am not saying that there is no place for robust debate and trying to persuade others of our argument. Reconciliation is only possible when two sides are open and honest. Reconciliation is not about brushing our differences under the carpet and pretending to be one happy family. It is about having our differences in the open but dealing with them in a way that is constructive and doesn’t involve segregation or conquest. To reiterate this is not easy but history shows it is possible.

In the United Kingdom, for nearly four decades a bloody counter-insurgency war raged in Northern Ireland. Neighbours were divided by politics and religion. Thousands on all sides were killed. Some of these were combatants (paramilitaries, soldiers, police and politicians) but many were also innocent people in Northern Ireland, the British mainland and the Republic of Ireland. Terrible things were done by both sides. But now there is peace on a scale unimaginable even in the 1990s. Yes, there are still pockets of violence but the vast majority have learned that peace is better than war. Reconciliation doesn’t mean that difference disappears - divisions still remain in Northern Ireland to this day. But reconciliation - learning to live with those who hate you and those who you hate - is the only way that peace is possible. And peace is always a compromise because you cannot have peace and conquer others, and you cannot truly have peace and be segregated from other human beings.

In all areas of conflict, reconciliation and diametrically opposing sides learning to live together is possible but not easy. It doesn’t just happen automatically. It needs peacemakers who will help enemies to learn how to live together. Peacemaking doesn’t mean we have to compromise our beliefs or who God has created us to be, but is does mean working to find ways to live together - however imperfect it may feel to us. 

Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies. This is quoted often, but it is genuinely a tall order. It is also a lot to ask, especially when there has been real hatred and hurt done to individuals. It’s something that as a flawed human being I struggle with, and I am no expert in loving anyone. But, however hard it is, it is the only way to end conflict and bring about reconciliation. The history of conflict has taught us that segregation and conquest only stores up more trouble for the future. Reconciliation is perhaps the most difficult thing a human being is asked to do, but do we really have any alternative?

So where does reconciliation start? It begins with kindness to all those who God created. Who knows what might happen to our enemies if we learn how to love them.

“ ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12: 19-20

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Let's talk about love not sex: Thoughts on the Pilling Report

Today I’m breaking one of my own rules and talking about the controversy about same-sex relationships among Christians. To be honest I don’t like speaking about this issue for a range of different reasons. Perhaps the main one is that it receives too much air time and (however important the issues are for both sides) often becomes a distraction. It also gives the false impression in the media that the Church is obsessed with sex. On a local level we are most certainly not obsessed with sex. The amount of time I spend talking about human sexuality at a parish level is miniscule. We tend to talk about other things - life, death, poverty, suffering, and the meaning of life. Yet the wider public think that gay marriage and women bishops are all the Church is concerned with. When these issues (and I want to affirm that they are important) distract us from helping the poor, caring for the sick and dying, showing love to our neighbour and proclaiming the good news of Jesus then something has gone badly wrong.

The other reason I don’t like engaging in this issue is because of the lack of grace displayed by Christians on both ends of the spectrum. I don’t like labels, but for the sake of shorthand these groups are generally referred to as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Unfortunately the media like to trot out Christians of both persuasions who are more interested in shouting about their own theological viewpoints rather than listening to someone else’s view. Liberals have public opinion on their side so often like to characterise conservatives as bigots who are undermining a gospel of love and acceptance, and conservatives, swimming against the tide of public opinion, like to see themselves as a persecuted minority upholding the true faith against liberal heretics who are unbiblical. Frankly, both views are rubbish and a degrading caricature of what the ‘other’ is like. This political posturing means that neither side really wants to listen to the other. The truth is that what both liberals and conservatives have to say on this issue matters, and that their arguments are always more thought through and complex than the opposing camp realises. There has to be a genuine and meaningful exchange between modern culture and the Bible with all the theological insights that all traditions have to offer.

The Pilling Report on human sexuality has just been published by the Church of England. This report is not a change in policy for the Church. Instead it is a set of recommendations by a working group on human sexuality which proposes, what both Archbishops call, ‘a process of facilitated conversations in the Church of England over a period of perhaps two years.’

Personally, I welcome any report which may mean that Christians who have fundamentally differing opinions will have the opportunity to have a constructive conversation about the way forward on such a contentious issue. However, any conversation has to be constructive and has to move beyond emotional rhetoric and entrenched positions and to allow all parties to be heard and encourage all parties to genuinely listen with a spirit of Christian love and fellowship.

I believe that this report and the facilitated conversations that follow could be a positive opportunity for the Church. We are never going to agree on everything - no group of human beings can. After all, how many families do you know who never have arguments? However, we do have the opportunity now to show the world that we are a family - albeit one that is fiercely argumentative - and that our disagreements do not stop us from being a family and do not stop us from loving one another. If we cannot do this then we have failed to be the body of Christ.

The Church at this time doesn’t necessarily need total uniformity in doctrine and practice, but it does need to be able to love one another. If this process of facilitated conversation is going to bear any fruit then all factions (liberal, conservative and those of us in the middle) need to be genuinely interested in what another person has to say, and why, even if we fundamentally disagree with them. For Christians, grace should be at the heart of all our relationships. Presently in debates about this issue I don’t believe that all commentators - both conservative or liberal - display that much grace towards those of a different opinion. And until we learn how to be genuinely gracious and Christ-like to those who we disagree with there will never be reconciliation. But this could be one of those moments in which love and family could perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, transcend deep disagreements.

‘I pray also for those who will believe in me ... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ John 17:20-21

Friday, 25 October 2013

Russell Brand and My Democratic Dilemma

I’m one of those people who doesn’t switch off when it’s Prime Minister’s Questions, who also (when I’m not too tired) switches over to Newsnight after the 10 O’Clock News has finished, and who wishes that the Andrew Marr Show was on at any other time than Sunday mornings. I’ve always found politics fascinating, ever since the 1992 General Election when we had a mock election in school. But the other day, when I opened a letter and found the electoral roll forms to be filled in, I inwardly groaned.

My dilemma is that even though I follow politics, I have absolutely no idea who I will vote for at the next election. Thankfully the next General Election isn’t until 2015 so I have plenty of time to think.

The trouble is that I now cannot support any of the main political parties - or indeed any of the smaller ones. There are some aspects of Labour policy that I support, and other aspects I disagree with. The Tories talk sense on one issue and absolute rubbish about another. And the Lib Dems are just the same as the other two bigger parties. There is not one political party or political ideology that I could sign up to with a clear conscience. 

The culture of British party politics is also extremely off putting and its adversarial nature means that politicians seem incapable of having a grown-up conversation about difficult and complex issues. Much of political discourse is about point scoring and undermining  your opponents rather than being constructive and working together to help make Britain a better place to live for everyone. If one political party comes up with a good idea - and it does happen occasionally - then the opposing parties will never admit it and will always try and find something to disagree on. Why is it that our political classes are so lacking in good will and grace towards anyone who has a different opinion to themselves?

But what has been even more disturbing this week is that I’ve found myself having sympathy with the political views of comedian Russell Brand! While his BBC interview this week with Jeremy Paxman was politically naive and lacking in any kind of constructive strategy for reforming the political system, I did find myself sharing his contempt for how the political classes operate.

Many politicians have questions to answer about their behaviour and motivations, but are they wholly to blame for our political system? Could it be that the people who vote for them - us - are to blame? Russell Brand says he has never voted and never will because he doesn’t want to be complicit in the political system. Is democracy itself to blame? Are our politicians only as good as the people they want to win votes from?

Democracy is a political system where the majority elect representatives so what the majority think and believe in theory holds huge power. But what happens when what the majority think and believe is oppressive or dangerous for a minority? Is democracy good for minorities? On the issue of immigration and asylum the majority of the general population is hostile. The Coalition Government and Labour (both in the previous administration and in opposition) both have policies that make the lives of many asylum seekers miserable. I have seen genuine asylum seekers deported or put through immense suffering because successive governments want to win votes from the majority who are worried about immigration. So can we blame the politicians for everything or are we who vote also complicit in oppressing minorities?

Is the solution to get rid of democracy, to stop voting and to have a revolution which benefits the underclass rather than the corporations? This seems to be Russell Brand’s rather vague manifesto. I’m not sure that getting rid of democracy would do any good, and the alternatives don’t exactly inspire me with confidence. After all, Winston Churchill once said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

For all the failings of politicians and the electorate, I’m afraid we’re stuck with democracy. However, we shouldn’t see democracy as an elite political ideology. Like any other philosophy and ideology, democracy is only as good as the human beings involved. It is capable of being corrupted and used as a tool of oppression. So what we need in Britain is a democracy that is a bit more grown-up and willing to discuss complex issues sensibly. We - as voters and politicians - need to move beyond adversarial slanging matches, ditch comfortable soundbites and avoid trivial point scoring. 

Such a system will be messy and frankly rather frustrating, but to work it needs to include everyone and for the voices of the oppressed and minority groups to be heard by all. As a Christian I cannot avoid the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus came not to start a political movement but to restore the whole of creation. What he had to say about human sin and our own selfish motivations, about justice for the oppressed and speaking truth to those in authority needs to be heard in our democracy.

British democracy will never be perfect - simply because we are all flawed humans - but what Jesus said and taught has to be the foundation stone for a democracy that is based on love for others rather than self interest.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

‘Christianophobia’ and the Middle East

I’ve just finished reading ‘Christianophobia’ by Rupert Shortt, who is the Religion Editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This tragic account of the persecution suffered by Christians across the world in the twenty-first century is both thought provoking and balanced, and I would highly recommend it to anyone of all faiths and none. It is also deeply shocking reading for any Christian or indeed any person of good will in the West. Some of the most chilling chapters focused on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and the fact that the violence, persecution and discrimination against Christians in the Middle East is grossly under-reported by the Western media.

What so many forget is that Christianity is not a foreign or colonial import to the Middle East. Instead, the Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity and was exported to us in the West! Most of the Christian minorities in the Middle East predate both Christianity coming to the West and also the arrival of Islam. The Coptic Orthodox, the Syriac Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Eastern Catholics and many other ancient churches all trace their roots back nearly two thousand years.

Today in most Middle Eastern countries, Christianity is under extreme pressure. This summer alone has seen countless attacks on Christians and churches in Egypt following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the most shocking story to come out of the chaos in Egypt was the murder of ten-year-old Jessica Boulous on 6 August. Jessica was shot dead as she walked home from a Bible class simply because she was a Christian. 

Sadly, Jessica’s murder is not an isolated incident in the Middle East. Christians in Iraq have almost been eradicated since the West’s catastrophic invasion in 2003. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph’s Edward Malnick, Canon Andrew White leads Iraq’s only Anglican church, St George’s Baghdad, and says that there ‘used to be 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, but now we have only got 200,000 left.’ While no community was left unscathed in Iraq’s mayhem, Christians in particular were singled out by Islamists and have suffered unimaginable suffering. 

Syria too is seeing its Christian minority (which is around 10% of the population and mostly made up of ancient church communities) increasingly threatened by jihadists as a result of the horrendous civil war. As I write, Western governments are beginning to talk about military action to punish the Syrian regime for the sickening chemical attack on civilians last week. What will launching a few missile strikes actually achieve? Whatever happens in Syria, I fear that Christians will be caught in the middle and suffer the same terrible fate as Christians in neighbouring Iraq.

Lord Sacks, the out-going Chief Rabbi of Britain’s Jewish community, again speaking to the Daily Telegraph, has said that what is happening to Christians in the Middle East is the ‘religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing’ and he is shocked that no Western political leaders have spoken out against the shocking violence against Christians. The sad truth is that defending the human rights of Middle Eastern Christians is not in the strategic interests for the West, any more than it is for the other power players in the region. 

It is now time for Western Christians and for people of good will, from all faiths and none, to stand up on behalf of a beleaguered and ignored minority.

Christians in the West really need to wake up. How can we waste all of our time arguing about gay marriage, women bishops and the style of our worship services when fellow brothers and sisters are facing such unspeakable atrocities? The situation for Christians in the Middle East is desperate and is getting worse as the region becomes more unstable. 

So what can we do? There are some brilliant organisations working in the Middle East which we could all support financially, such as Embrace or Andrew White's Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East. We can all raise awareness of this issue through social media, lobbying MPs or simply telling other people about it. And finally, we can all pray that God would bring an end to the suffering of both Christians and of all people who call their home in the Middle East.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Welby and Wonga

I wish I understood economics and finance more, but the truth is that I am fairly financially illiterate. I’m fine at managing my own money but when it comes to the stock markets, quantitative easing, the balance of payments, financial derivatives, hedge funds and the like I easily start to get very lost and very bored. Yet the financial world and its impact on ordinary people is something that none of us can avoid. Decisions made by politicians, economists, traders, lenders and bankers have a huge impact, especially on the poorest.

Unlike me, Justin Welby is someone who understands the financial world. Prior to ordination he was an oil executive, later he wrote a paper called ‘Can Companies Sin?’ and now as Archbishop of Canterbury he is a member of the influential Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. He understands just how important it is for the Church to understand and meaningfully engage with the financial world. He also understands that in the present economic climate the Church needs to be on the side of the poor and give help to those who are suffering through poverty.

The past few days have seen good headlines for the Church when Archbishop Justin said that the Church of England would try to force online payday lending firms, such as Wonga, out of business by helping credit unions to compete against them. But it’s also seen bad headlines when it was revealed that, unbeknown to the archbishop, the Church Commissioners (who invest the Church’s money to fund pensions) have indirectly invested a very small amount of capital in Wonga through a venture capital firm. Despite the bad headlines (and the truth is that it is really hard for any investor to know exactly where the companies they invest in will end up investing their capital) the principle of Welby’s plan to support credit unions is really breathtakingly audacious, and it would be unfair for it to be overshadowed.

The main difference between payday lenders and credit unions is the rate of interest charged for a loan. Payday lenders such as Wonga can charge around 1% interest per day whereas credit unions can only charge up to 2% interest per month. That means that payday lenders are making money out of the poor (after all it’s only the poorest in society that often need these kind of short-term loans) whereas the credit unions charge a much smaller rate of interest just to break even. 

The Bible is clear that usury - the charging of excessive rates of interest - is a sin. So how can  charging 5,853% APR (Wonga’s annual rate of interest) ever be justified? It is this injustice that Welby and the Church are challenging through promoting the idea of credit unions using parish churches to allow local people access to finance that doesn’t charge extortionate rates of interest. Additionally, if people had easier access to credit unions then perhaps those in desperate need of cash could avoid the illegal and predatory loan sharks than plague our poorer communities. 

For all the embarrassment that Welby and the Church have faced over a tiny percentage of its capital being indirectly invested in Wonga, what the Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed is far too important to improving the lives of the poorest to be blown off course. If the Church can help force payday lenders and illegal loan sharks out of business then the lives of some of the poorest in our society could be changed and perhaps the spiralling of debt can be ended.

Justin Welby is to be commended for his vision and his commitment to helping the poorest in our society. After all, those in poverty are human beings and should never be a commodity for companies and individuals to make money from.

If you lend money to any of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.’ Exodus 22:25.

Friday, 7 June 2013

A Hollow Crown?

During Anglicanism lectures at theological college, I was jokingly referred to by my fellow ordinands as an ‘old Labour royalist.’ While I would not describe myself as ‘old Labour’ - principally because I don’t support any political party - I suppose I am, and have always been, a royalist. At my ordination when I swore an oath to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’ it was a promise that I meant and took seriously. This week, in which the Queen has commemorated sixty years since her coronation in Westminster Abbey, I have been reflecting once again on why it is that my support for the monarchy remains strong. 
In a modern, pluralist and democratic country such as ours, what is the value in an ancient, Christian and hereditary monarchy? Surely there should be no space in twenty-first century Britain for an unelected, privileged and elderly woman to be our head of state?

It’s fascinating that the Queen and the British Monarchy still have a huge amount of support amongst the British population. Opinion polls throughout the past thirty years have consistently put support for the monarchy at around 70%, with some even around 80% in the Diamond Jubilee year. No politician or political party could ever hope to get these kind of approval ratings. There are many reasons why the Queen still commands respect and affection from the public. There is her longevity - most of us can’t remember her not being on the throne - and her devotion to duty. Also, there is the institution’s ability to adapt to democracy and to reinvent itself for the modern age. Certainly in a consumer age, the brand of monarchy is hugely successful both at home and globally.

Indeed I also believe that constitutional monarchy can also be healthier in a democracy than a presidential system. In the United States, the President wields huge power. He is both head of state and head of the executive. In Britain there is a separation of powers between head of state and head of government. The Prime Minister does not hold as much power as a US President. There is also a semi-symbiotic relationship between the Queen and Prime Minister. He is ultimately answerable to the monarch, but the monarch can only act on advice. Both monarch and head of government are kept in check and know their place. I also love to see the effect that this elderly woman with no real political power can have on grown men and women. So many politicians and celebrities suddenly become anxious and star struck when meeting the Queen and so it can be very satisfying to witness those who are powerful and successful momentarily in awe when they come face-to-face with the most famous woman in the world. For the foreseeable future, I can see no public appetite for an elected head of state as this will almost always mean having a politician as president. The beauty of a constitutional monarchy is that the head of state is above politics and can be a figure of unity across communities and the political spectrum. Certainly no elected head of state could ever achieve the same level of popularity.

However, for Christians - and it could be argued for all people of faith - I believe that there is an important spiritual role that the monarchy plays in our society. As we have been reminded this week, at its heart the coronation is a religious service and sets apart the monarch for service to God. The coronation is very similar to an ordination. The Queen was anointed with holy oil, made solemn vows to God, received Holy Communion, was dressed in priestly robes and given symbolic religious insignia. For people of faith I believe that the religious element to the monarchy is hugely important. At its best and when it works well (after all, all human institutions are fallible) the monarchy should point away from itself and towards God. Democratic institutions are primarily answerable to the people, whereas a constitutional monarchy is answerable to both God and the people. The Queen as supreme governor of the Church of England and defender of the faith is a reminder that there is a spiritual dimension and that God also holds nations and political institutions to account.

The monarchy is not perfect - indeed in a democratic age a bad king or queen could, and possibly should, spell the end of this ancient institution - but in its present form it works well. It should also be said that the success of the modern monarchy is down to the wisdom of the Queen. However, as a symbol to point away from itself and towards God, I believe that a Christian monarchy has unique value. Indeed this could be summed up in the words of the Queen herself when she said: ‘For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.’

If Elizabeth were not our queen then perhaps my views on monarchy would be different. But for now and especially this week as we remember her consecration before God let us ‘sing with heart and voice God save the Queen.’

Photograph of HM The Queen © Royal Household/John Swannell