Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Bombing Islamic State in Syria

In February 2003 I was one of around a million people who marched through London to protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq. It was a bitterly cold day but the streets were packed with a huge cross section of British society all united in trying to persuade Tony Blair not to attack Iraq. Of course we know what happened and the terrible consequences of that war. Yet even to those of us who opposed military action in 2003, I think that the extent of the subsequent bloodletting that followed in Iraq would have surprised us had someone from the future told us what would happen.

Royal Air Force Tornado
Crown Copyright under Creative Commons Licence
Photographer: Corporal Mike Jones
The recent history of Iraq reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables in which he told this story: 

'When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of the man is worse than the first.’ (Matthew 12:43-45)

To me this chilling parable speaks to us of what happened in Iraq. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but because of the vacuum left behind after he was deposed and because of the failures of the American and British Government in building the peace, a new and more terrifying evil has entered Iraq. What Islamic State have done in Iraq and in Syria is both more brutal and arguably more evil than the authoritarian Ba'athist regimes they replaced. The trouble with wars is that they are unpredictable and can have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.

So far the question about British involvement in bombing Syria seems an open and shut case. Learn the lessons of Iraq and abandon military interventionism. Yet, sadly life is rarely that straight forward.

For while there are huge and often unknowable consequences to intervening militarily in a crisis, there are also consequences to inaction or being slow to act. The world failed to act to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia during the 1990s and, as a result, thousands of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered while the United Nations and Western nations largely stood at the sidelines.

The sad truth about the appalling mess that the world finds itself in is that there are no longer any good choices to make. All options on the table are likely to end in death and destruction - usually for innocent Syrians and Iraqis. 

Bombing Islamic State targets in Syria - as we are already doing in Iraq - is more than likely to cause the deaths of innocent civilians and reinforce the narrative of a crusading West which then draws young Muslim men and women to join the so-called Caliphate. David Cameron and all those who choose to go to war should be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of the innocent. 

Yet, inaction will also have consequences. In summer 2014 the world failed to act and allowed Islamic State to commit genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq, ethnically cleanse Iraq and Syria of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other minorities, to rape and enslave women and to carry out the systematic and brutal murders of civilians. It is unlikely IS can be stopped without some kind of military intervention. Jeremy Corbyn and all those who choose not to go to war should also be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of innocent civilians.

Either way blood will be on all of our hands. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. There are no longer any easy choices to make over dealing with Islamic State. Whatever Britain and the rest of the world chooses to do with have dangerous consequences, but perhaps we can try and settle for the least worse option.

So whatever happens over Syria and Iraq, whether MPs vote to extend airstrikes over Syria or not, none of us should wash our hands and walk on by on the other side. This crisis may get worse before it gets better, but what the world needs to do is to put aside our differences, learn the lessons of peace building in Iraq, and make lasting peace a reality for the people of Syria and Iraq - by whatever means necessary.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Europe’s Shame: The Migrant and Refugee Crisis

The heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing image of a dead three-year-old boy washed up on a beach may prove to be the defining image of the migrant and refugee crisis that Europe is struggling to deal with. The Independent newspaper made a brave decision to put this graphic image on their front page this morning. It isn’t pleasant but it does help to reframe the debate. Instead of seeing migrants and refugees as a faceless ‘swarm’ this image demonstrates the terrible human cost of this crisis. 

Sadly this crisis is not new. Two years ago, Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa and condemned what he saw as ‘global indifference’ to the plight of migrants drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean. A colossal failure in leadership by European leaders and indifference and even hostility by European populations has exacerbated the crisis. Certain sections of the media are also to blame for stoking hostility. The Daily Express front page on 11 August which criticised the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme for wasting tax payers’ money by filming at the migrant camp in Calais was just barely concealed racism.

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31)
rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton.

Copyright Irish Defence Force under 
Creative Commons Licence
On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, the former Cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, spoke with compassion when she highlighted Britain’s history in offering refuge to people fleeing war and persecution. England offered many Huguenots asylum during the sixteenth century, and Edward VI even gave them the whole of the western crypt of Canterbury Cathedral for their worship. They still worship there to this day. Then in the twentieth century, the Kindertransport organised before the outbreak of World War II saw Britain take in nearly 10,000 Jewish children. To me it is sad that Britain is not living up to the hospitality offered by our ancestors.

Baroness Warsi was also right to point out that Britain is already a major supplier of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, but I feel that however laudable our aid contribution is it there is still more that can be done. Last summer, Britain was slow to act as Islamic State seized control of Mosul and forced Yazidis and Christians to flee. In being slow to act and in refusing to take in refugees arriving in Europe, we are making the same mistake over this crisis, which of course is partly caused by the chaos in Syria and northern Iraq.

David Cameron and other European leaders now need to show both leadership and compassion in this crisis. The British Government needs to take a lead and not be swayed by xenophobic and isolationist views on immigration. It would be naive to say that immigration is always benign and doesn’t present challenges to the United Kingdom. Immigration often comes with profound dilemmas for both immigrant and indigenous communities. However, from a Christian perspective, ignoring the plight of these migrants and refugees is untenable and goes against the grain of scripture and Christian tradition. Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Sheep and the Goats* mean that for Christians we do not have the luxury of being able to walk on by on the other side (read them if you don't believe me). Jesus simply does not allow us to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

However, hospitality is by nature a costly enterprise. Just as, in the parable, the Good Samaritan paid for the injured man to be cared for at an inn, hospitality costs us something. Dealing with the migrant and refugee crisis will be costly, but I guarantee that that the cost will be less to us than it was for that dead three-year-old on the beach.

* Luke 10:29-37, Luke 16:19-31, Matthew 25:31-36

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Princess, the Politicians and the People: The 2015 General Election Campaign

After wall-to-wall coverage of the General Election campaign over the past few weeks, it was a welcome respite last weekend for news coverage to be dominated with the birth of Princess Charlotte. Indeed, there seemed to be a collective and palpable sign of relief as the British public lapped up a much needed good news story, and the politicians were temporarily kicked off the front pages by a baby princess who is happily oblivious to the political maelstrom that she has been born into.

While I am an avid follower of politics, I’m afraid I haven’t changed my view from a blog post two years ago in which I shared my frustration with the main political parties, and how I would struggle to know who to vote for in 2015. With just two days to go, I’m still not sure who to vote for. The main problem with the General Election campaign has been that it is pretty depressing to follow. The hatred and distrust between politicians and political parties is an unedifying spectacle and not a particularly mature way of seeking a mandate to govern the country.

Any fresh vision for the future espoused by any of the political parties is being drowned out by a hugely negative campaign on all sides. Given that we are likely to be heading to another hung parliament, you can almost sense the desperation from the three biggest parties; this General Election matters more than any other election in recent memory. Who wins power and what coalition is formed could have profound implications for the whole nation.

Sadly, there seem to be few voices who are seeking to confront the huge issues that are facing the UK in the early twenty-first century. We have a society where even working people have to rely on food banks, where our country has a huge deficit, where our health service is often at breaking point, where the gap between rich and poor is growing, where our communities are fractured and there is huge distrust with immigration. These challenges demand from our political leaders a fresh vision for the future and desire to build a society based on the common good.

parliamentary copyright images are
reproduced with the permission of Parliament
Sadly, too often politics is actually about self-interest or by political parties looking after their own support base. This emphasis on self-interest means an increasingly negative tone in campaigning and means political point scoring by attacking the 'Other' in society whether that is big business, the poor, the English, the Scots, the immigrants, the EU, those on the left or those on the right. All the major political parties - whether it’s the SNP or UKIP, Labour or the Conservatives - are guilty of seeking to divide rather than heal an increasingly divided nation.

This may well have been how politics has functioned since time immemorial but that doesn’t mean that it is right, and it is something that needs to be challenged. The US Christian writer, Jim Wallis writes about an American context, but it is true of the United Kingdom too:

‘It’s time to find a better vision for our life together. Politics is failing to solve most of the biggest problems our world world now faces - and the disillusionment with elections and politicians has gone global.
   Politicians continue to focus on blame instead of solutions, winning instead of governing, ideology instead of civility.’

This negativity in politics does not inspire confidence in me, and it is sad that politics is often now about fear of the other rather than articulating a vision of hope for the future. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that British society is at ‘a watershed moment.’ The United Kingdom is our country’s name, but we are hardly a united society. Rather, we are living in an age of greater polarisation and we desperately need a new politics that speaks of hope, and more importantly is based on love and the common good.

Love is not a popular term within party politics, but perhaps the Biblical sense of agapē (which is translated as ‘sacrificial’ or ‘self-giving’ love) is something that will lead to a better politics. Within Christian theology, love is exemplified in and through the self-giving love of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is the kind of love that seeks the well-being of others and which seeks the common good  and the flourishing of all in our society, whether they belong to our political, ethnic, religious or class tribe or not.

While love and building the common good is something that is much needed within the political sphere, it would be wrong to blame politicians for everything that is wrong with modern politics. After all, politicians are a reflection of society as a whole, which has become more individualistic and based around what we want rather than the good of all in our communities. In his recent book, ‘On Rock or Sand?’ John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, writes that:

‘In previous generations, a good life was defined by making a positive difference to one’s community, nation and even the world. This was expressed in lives of service and solidarity with one’s neighbours. But that idea has given way to an individualist and consumerist conception of the good life characterised by the management of individual pleasure.’

If we want politics to change, then we should also seek to change our society. As a Christian, for me it is only through embracing and following the way of love marked out by Jesus that can begin to build for the common good of all in the United Kingdom. The trouble is that this way of love will be costly and demand something of all of us. So while I might bemoan a broken political system, the uncomfortable truth is that broken politics speaks of a broken and self-centred society that all of us are responsible for creating, but also for mending.

So, who should we vote for on 7th May? Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, offers some excellent advice in his recent article for the Huffington Post. Perhaps it is time to move away from voting for parties and prime ministers, and instead vote for those local candidates who will represent us with integrity and seek the common good. Maybe the fleeting sight of a newborn baby cradled by her mother outside a London hospital might just remind us that to God all in our society are as precious to him as a child is to their parents. After all, we are all made in the image of God.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Rehabilitation of Anne Boleyn

The BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel makes compelling viewing. It may not be the fastest moving drama on television but it more than makes up for this with the depth of its acting and its faithfulness to the novel and to the Tudor period. All the principle actors are brilliant, but for me Claire Foy’s performance as the charismatic and ruthless Anne Boleyn stands out.

Anne Boleyn, who infamously became the second of Henry VIII’s six wives and ended up with being beheaded in the Tower of London, is well known for beguiling the king with her charms. Sadly though, most people are left with this rather two dimensional and sexist view of Anne as the archetypal temptress who stopped at nothing to take the throne from her rival, Katherine of Aragon, the king’s first wife.

There is much more to the story of Anne Boleyn than a soapy love-triangle and I think it’s high time that Anne’s reputation was rehabilitated and for us to see her as one of the most impressive political leaders in the Tudor period.

To historians today, Anne remains as divisive and controversial as she was in sixteenth century. She was queen consort of England for less than three years, ended up being the first queen consort executed for treason, and yet her legacy is still with us today.

Her rise was meteoric and her fall was just as spectacular. To many people, she was simply the woman that Henry VIII fell in love with, who caused the break with Rome and the foundation of the Protestant Church of England. Others just remember her for the lurid and politically motivated allegations of incest and sexual impropriety that were used to bring her down.

The reality of Anne’s rise and fall is actually much more stunning. As a politician she was shrewd and as astute as the male advisers who surrounded the king. She was certainly as able a politician as Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. She commanded her own powerful Boleyn faction at court; the more influence she had with the king the more of her family and supporters found themselves in high office. Rather than relying on her beauty (as many have assumed) it was her sheer charisma and political calculation that meant that she unseated a queen and became the most powerful woman in England.

However, for me Anne should also be acknowledged as the mother of the English Reformation. What is often glossed over or forgotten is that the break with Rome wasn’t just a politically expedient for her to usurp Katherine as queen, instead it could also be argued that Anne herself was one of the evangelical reformers herself. 

Her role in the English Reformation is controversial, and certainly the break with Rome was politically expedient for Anne’s own ambition to become queen, but I believe there is evidence to suggest that Anne genuinely held a reformist position. Eric Ives’ excellent biography of Anne lends much weight to Anne as an evangelical reformer and as a patron of reform: ‘Anne played a major part in pushing Henry into asserting his headship of the Church…Yet over and beyond this, Anne was a strong supporter of the religious reform.’ Ives argues that evidence for her role in reform of the Church can be seen through her influence in getting evangelical bishops appointed to sees during her three years as queen consort. ‘Indeed,’ Ives writes, ‘of the ten elections to be episcopate between 1532 and Anne’s death in 1536 seven were reformers who were her clients.’ (Ives, p. 260-1) The most influential of these men was to be Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and was formerly a chaplain to the Boleyn family.

According to Ives, further evidence of Anne’s reformist agenda can be seen through her patronage of reformers at all levels of the Church, including her own personal chaplains who she chose from amongst reformist scholars at Cambridge. He strengthens her reformist credentials further by saying that, ‘the absolute conviction which drove Anne was the importance of the Bible.’ She studied the Bible in the vernacular, encouraged the reading of the Bible in English and protected the illegal trade in Bibles (Ives, ch. 18). She also believed that money from the dissolution of the monasteries should be used to benefit charities and education rather than filling the king's coffers (Ives, p 308-12). In short, Ives' writes: 'It is hard to deny Anne a personal faith. Apart from the Bible in which, significantly, we know she had an interest in Paul's epistles, the works she read and collected are certainly redolent of a Christianity of commitment and not of routine observance.' (Ives, p. 279)

Despite her strong religious convictions, Anne was no saint and was as ruthless as any of Henry’s male counsellors. She was a politician and religious reformer in equal measure. 

What cemented Anne’s place in history was her spectacular fall from grace. As Dr Suzannah Lipscomb outlines, historians still argue about what factors brought an English queen to be beheaded, but what seems certain is that Anne was innocent and was convicted and executed based on trumped up charges. 

For me what makes Anne remarkable is not her spectacular death and the sordid, though blatantly untrue, allegations against her, but rather by what she achieved as a young woman in a patriarchal world. Today, Anne’s ambition would probably have propelled her into Downing Street or Whitehall, but in the sixteenth century she rose as high as she could to become Queen of England. However, perhaps another reason for her downfall is that she didn’t play the game in the way that was expected of her. In the sixteenth century, queens were there to forge political allegiances and to produce a male heir. As a commoner who produced a daughter, Anne did neither but instead she sort to wield unprecedented political power at the heart of Henry’s court. Maybe that is what was her undoing?

Whatever the reason, Anne Boleyn deserves to be rehabilitated as a significant political player and religious reformer in her own right.