Responding to violence and fear…

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You know what I am referring to. The news, your Facetwitter feed, even good old fashioned communication- it is full of the desperate events that unfolded in Paris over the last couple of days. Violence and murder done in the name of religion. Violence that grew like poisonous funghi in the shadow cast by other violence.

Events like this have the capacity to shape our age, for good or ill. Our response to it should be to preach caution, to encourage a sense of proportion and to remind people of history, so we might learn from it.

People of faith have a particular role to play here, given the centrality of theology as both framing narrative and ideological justification for unspeakable barbarity. The meaning of ancient texts has become so mixed up with tribal identity and weight of injustice that perhaps it is only from within religion that violence can be challenged. I know this as the hard, unyielding condemning religion I grew up with was transformed through thoughtful engagement with a different kind of belief.

Giles Fraser had this to say about the relationship between iconography and religion;

But, of course, these terrorists weren’t really interested in theology. They thought that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were insulting their human tribe, a tribe they called fellow Muslims. And maybe they were. But whatever else was happening, it was the atheist cartoonists who were performing the religious function and the apparently believing Muslims who had forgotten their deepest religious insights. For any representation of the divine that leads people to murder each other deserves the maximum possible disrespect.

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But back to the point- what should be our response?

I mentioned attempting to retain some perspective. It is so hard to do this when bombarded with so much infotainment/news coverage. Meanwhile extremes are shouted from the margins by those who have a different tribal agenda- Muslims are all evil, as is their religion; we are all under attack from immigrants in our midst; all religion is bad; Christians were right all along etc etc.

Let us remember in this white/anglo-saxon/protestant centric world we inhabit that across much of the planet human life is cheap. The deaths in Paris were tragic, dreadful, appalling. But Yesterday in Nigeria around 2000 people were killed in a different Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram. Be honest now- did you know about this? How do you emotionally and intellectually respond?

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Then there are the lessons of even recent history (let us not even mention the dreadful colonial legacy that has far more to do with the creation of terrorism than religion ever could have).

Although we have to start there in a way. At the end of Empire, Britain had lived with terrorism for at least 100 years. The transition from colonial territory to autonomous nation has rarely been peaceful; too many artificial borders imposed on disparate peoples, with a history of being on different sides of the many colonially sponsored conflicts. Britain learned the hard way that conventional warfare is never the long term solution to insurgency and terror. Or rather we had to re learn this again and again, treading a path that is remarkably familiar; concentration camps, secret police, propaganda campaigns that leave no room for dissidents, and along the way many a blood bath; Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland etc etc. Eventually we had to talk to people. We had to turn away from violence and try to make peace in the face of all sorts of provocations.

Ah- but these conflicts were largely about geography, not about ideology, I hear you cry; modern terrorism has no obvious negotiation point; we can not walk away, because it is coming to us- our homes, our streets. It arises internally from our own ethnic minority communities.

I would suggest that there are more similarities than would first appear, it is just that like all post modern movements, terror has globalised. It has worldwide franchises, but power and motivation are still generated in the conflict zones.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America declared a war of vengeance. They were quite open about it at the time. Someone had to pay. First Afghanistan was invaded, with a narrative about evil regimes, then on far shakier evidence (later almost entirely discredited) Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The bulging prison camps became training grounds for new terror movements. Surveillance and a suspension of the rule of law was seen as justifiable and expedient. To support the war effort successive governments incited fear in a wider public who, in general terms, had probably never been so safe. Has it worked? Can we really regard the world, even the USA as a safer place, a better place?

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Here is Owen Jones writing about events in Norway in the wake of their brush with terror;

Three and a half years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then gunned down dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.

Here’s how the murderers who despicably gunned down the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo do not want us to respond. Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

As a nation we are vulnerable to many things in these changing and rootless times. Our chances of early death at the hands of an Islamic terrorist are absolutely tiny. Lots of other things that we live with every day will kill thousands of us; our lifestyles, our motor cars. There is a chance that our over consuming will be the end of our kind.

So let us pause, remember with respect those souls who passed and then try to make peace with ourselves and then with our neighbours.

Jar of peace

Gay, suicidal, pop starring, drug taking, promiscuous, vicar…

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And quite wonderful for all of it.

Finally got round to watching Fern Britton Meets Richard Coles on the i player, telling his story. You can catch it for a little while longer here.

Coles, along with the majestic Jimmy Sommerville were the founding members of The Communards, who provided part of the sound track to my student days. Although I could never dance, as I was even then far too awkward and self conscious.

In many ways, for people of faith, his story charts one of the totemic issues of our age. He survived hedonism of stardom in the 80’s, alongside the homophobic hysteria and traumatic loss of the AIDS epidemic and in the mess of it all, encountered Jesus.

Despite all the complex rejection and hostility towards homosexual people that was around then in the Church (even in the manifest presence of gay people within the walls of the establishment) God seemed to have no problem reaching for Richard.

Coles is now a CofE vicar, and lives in a celebate relationship with his partner David (also a vicar). So he remains a faithful witness to both the faith that found him and the person he was born to be.

Watch the programme if you can, it is beautiful and life affirming.

Comparing the ‘War on Drugs’ with the ‘War on Terror’…

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Stay with me a little on this one…

What do we know about the so called ‘War on Terror’? Here are some of the facts as I think we can generally accept them;

  • The back story to terror is long and winding; having roots in old Colonial power struggles
  • Poverty and broken societies in which people lose hope and connection also tend to breed terrorism
  • Behind the scenes are many vested interests who tend to prosper in spite of the miseries experienced by those directly affected
  • Terrorist/freedom fighter? It depends on your perspective and whose narrative frames the context
  • Fighting insurgency and terror using invasive conventional forces tends to create the very conditions for the violence to increase
  • Simplistic ideas of good and evil entrench the situation into a bloody stalemate and tend to make things worse

The evidence for these statements (which I accept are value laden and open to debate) is fairly widespread, but as a case study, consider the rise of ISIS, which according to its own leadership only exists because of the invasion of Iraq, and the imprisonment of key activists in brutal military prisons, which effectively became academies for the religious and political movement which led to the very formation of ISIS.

But that has been said before- the point of this piece is a rather interesting comparison with the ‘War on Drugs’- by which I mean the on going effort to address addiction to substances within the western world- and my own situation in the UK in particular. In case it is not obvious why I am blogging about this, I am concerned on this blog to engage with things that might bring freedom to the captives, and proclaim the hope of jubilee to those who have lost hope. Addicts need this more than most.

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By any measure, we are not really winning this war any more than we are winning the one against terror. Those on the front line are suffering dreadfully, many are dying young after blighted half-lives. You can check out the stats in relation to UK drug use here. Whilst the longer term trend of hard drug use have been down (although this figure might be masked by a trend towards new patterns of poly-drug use). In 2013 to 2014, 3.1% of adults aged 16 to 59 were defined as frequent drug users (having taken any illicit drug more than once a month on average in the last year), a slightly higher proportion than in 2012 to 2013 (2.8%) but similar to the 2011 to 2012 proportion (3.2%).Young adults were more likely to be frequent drug users than older people. The proportion of young adults aged 16 to 24 classed as frequent drug users (6.6%) was more than twice as high as the proportion of all adults aged 16 to 59 (3.1%) in 2013 to 2014 and represented a statistically significant increase compared with 2012 to 2013 (5.1%).

For those who are addicted, the story is complex; The majority of those in treatment in the UK are heroin and crack cocaine users; many have been using for a long time and as they get older are experiencing chronic health problems. Recovery for these people can be incredibly hard, however many have made remarkable recovery journeys and now lead full and accomplished lives. Services have gradually come to realise that recovery is rarely the consequence of moral choices enforced by criminality, nor by seeing people as ‘sick’ and needing treatment (these being the two main framing narratives for institutional response to addicts.

One of the best articles I have read about addiction recently was concerned with an interview with disgraced former Independent columnist Johann Hari (collaborator with Russel Brand) who has written a book about drugs, full of his and other’s experiences. I will throw in a few quotes from the article as I return to the comparison with the War on Terror. Mirroring the points above;

  • Fighting a War on Drugs has a long history, full of Colonial vested interests too. In this war, the victims may be further victimised in order to achieve socio-political security for the moral majority.

I had no idea that the war on drugs was single-handedly invented by a racist ex-prohibition agent, who needed to find a new problem big enough to protect his departmental budget. One of the first victims of his ambition was Billie Holiday, whose heroin addiction enraged him to the point where he hounded her to death. After he’d had the singer jailed for drugs, she was stripped of her performing licence, and as she unravelled into destitution and despair, his agents continued to harass her, even summoning a grand jury to indict her as she lay dying under police guard in a hospital bed.

  • People living in poor deprived areas are twice as likely to be addicted. Addiction is then related to social justice

The book is populated by a compelling cast of meth users, junkies and crack addicts. Other than addiction, what they have in common is heartbreaking early trauma and abuse. Childhood violence and prostitution, abandonment and homelessness, all led their victims to the same remedy: a narcotic anaesthetic for pain and loneliness. “Human beings have an innate need to bond. Healthy, happy people bond with other humans. But if you can’t do that because you’re so traumatised by your childhood that you can’t trust people, you may well bond with a drug instead.” The scientific evidence of the correlation is so overwhelming, Hari writes, that “child abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease”.

  • The drug treatment industry is vast. Prisons are full of persistent offenders because severe addiction almost always drives people into criminality of some kind. Then then there is the medical side, ranging from the desire to find some kind of addictive gene, or to produce drugs to stop people taking drugs, etc etc.
  • Some drugs are more evil than others. We modern humans are driven to alter our consciousness in all sorts of maladaptive and dependent ways, in many ways that could be regarded as damaging. Most of these addictive patterns of behaviour are not only legal, but they are actively encouraged; eating, drinking, gambling, shopping, computer gaming, etc. The drugs field has been further complicated by the emergence of a complex and changeable set of what are known as ‘legal highs’. Fighting a war against drugs is a socio-political decision dependent on a historical context.
  • The traditional armies engaged in the War against Drugs very much remind me of the beleaguered armies of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrast these two approaches;

Hari goes to Portugal, where all drug possession was decriminalised 13 years ago, and where even the police chief of the Lisbon drug squad now admits, “The things we were afraid of didn’t happen.” He also visits Tent City, a prison in the Arizona desert where the inmates live in tents in temperatures of 44C, wear T-shirts proclaiming I AM BREAKING THE NEED FOR WEED or I WAS A DRUG ADDICT, and are shackled into a chain gang every day and marched in public while reciting chants of repentance. “What I learned is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” Hari says….“The opposite of addiction is human connection. And I think that has massive implications for the war on drugs. The treatment of drug addicts almost everywhere in the world is much closer to Tent City than it is to anything in Portugal. Our laws are built around the belief that drug addicts need to be punished to stop them. But if pain and trauma and isolation cause addiction, then inflicting more pain and trauma and isolation is not going to solve that addiction. It’s actually going to deepen it.”

  • Drug addicts are even spoken about by alcoholics as ‘Junkie scum’. As if they should be discarded as sub-humans. Our general societal approach is to simplify addiction to them/us, despite the fact that they are us.

…we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what addiction is. It isn’t a moral failing. It isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you; it’s the cage you live in.”

There has been a shift in thinking in service land, as I mentioned earlier, towards ‘Psychosocial’ approaches, in which serious weight is given to context, adequate housing, wellbeing etc. However, as long as the war is being fought, at huge cost in resources and lives, then the focus can not really change.

Time to call for peace.

And sorry, this has to mean changing the law to decriminalise.

Before the storms came in, we went outside…

Winter Skies

It came, now it is memory. Our house was once again full of good friends, helping us celebrate the turn of the year.

My digestive tract is tender from the feasting.

My fingers are sore from playing instruments.

But my heart is warm from all the good things it has shared in.

Now the big old house seems empty and quiet. But this is good too; that is the beauty of festival and feasts- they punctuate the ordinary with the extraordinary. They bring us together to celebrate in excess; excess of food, of drink, of friendship, of loving, of laughing. But they can not last for ever, for what feast ever can?

The weather has been stormy and wet. On one day we ventured in the pitch dark and heavy rain up into Pucks Glen with torches to watch the cascading waterfalls foam white in the darkness.

But here are a few photos from another walk. I share them in gratefulness for my friends, family and the beautiful walk we make together…

New Years Resolution; STOP it!

Happy New Year to you all…

I offer this to those of us (lets be honest, ALL of us) who struggle with persistent habits and compulsions that life seems to lock us into. Some of you may be tempted to try to address these through the application of NY resolutions.

Stop it.

Just stop it.

TFT Christmas card 2014…

So, another year… This will be my 8th ‘Christmas card’ I think. Happy Christmas to you all!

May you all know the blessing of simple things.

May you be drawn close to those who love you, and may you love in return.

This year I offer you a picture from here, and one of my poems, from here.

Soon, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would become refugees…

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The stable, BC

 

Hold me close, my gentle love

The night is cold and hollow

Make me a cave

Within your arms

And deep within I’ll

Burrow

 

See that floor all trodden down?

Let it be our carpet

Make me finest silk

Like buttermilk

From this feed-sack

Blanket

 

Let’s whisper dreams of things to come

When we are done with caring

When what we have

Will be enough

With a little spare for

Sharing

 

The light from stars is far away

It takes a long time falling

So just for now

It is enough

To hear your gentle

Snoring