Pope Francis on Capitalism…

My sister challenged me to right something lighthearted here, and leave behind all the heavy economic/theology etc for a while, at least in part because some of it was making her cry (which in my book is no bad thing!)

I tried sis, I tried, but then I come across this;

I am trying not to get too excited by this old man. He is after all human, and like all of us, will be shown to have clay feet. But in the meantime he makes my heart dance.

At last someone is using a traditional seat of global power to speak the words of Jesus into the madness of our age. Those in power are rattled. The small people are engaged.

People get crucified for this kind of thing you know.

Contrast the words of Pope Francis with the latest morally bankrupt drivel from the Mayor of London.

Are people with high moral beliefs more likely to act them out?

sin

It has always been a bit of a strange thing to me how followers of Jesus came to be seen as collectively ‘holier than thou’. How over the millennia we serially get caught up in elaborate morality systems, measuring others by how much they share the same code and punishing those who do not.

It is not as though this was the model for life that Jesus gave us. As far as we are able to understand his way of teaching, way of living, he seemed to react against those in his time who lived this kind of religious life. Remember all those exchanges with the Pharisees, who had a rigid rule to measure everything against. By total contrast, Jesus seemed much keener for his disciples to live deeply and fully, opening themselves up to the wild ways of the Spirit and subjugating all sorts of rules to the overarching principle called love.

Having said that, let us not pretend that morality has no place within the life of faith. It is not as if anything goes. Choices we make in life have consequences – even passive choices. But those outside the holy huddles will often accuse those inside of rank hypocrisy, suggesting that we do not live according to our principles, let alone live up to the life of Jesus. Remember these words attributed to Ghandi?

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.

Or these, which he wrote in his autobiography;

 I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.

All of this starts for me to highlight the fact that although shaping our souls towards love may involve a constant processions of moral choices, morality itself should not be the starting point.

There was a story in The Guardian yesterday that made a rather different point about morality- suggesting that there might be an inverse relationship between highly developed ethical/moral belief and ethical/moral action. In other words, perhaps those who have rigid moral belief might be LESS likely to act on these beliefs.

Ethical philosophy isn’t the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren’t very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They’re also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.

One take on this is that ethicists are terrible hypocrites. As Schwitzgebel points out, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds: if philosophers were obliged to live by their findings, that might exert a “distortive pressure” on their work, tempting them to reach more self-indulgent conclusions about the moral life. (And there’s a case to be made, after all, that it’s better for people to preach the right thing but not practise it than to do neither.) But another possibility bears thinking about. It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?

Hmmm, what if our churches carry a similar kind of ethical corruption? Later the article describes something called  “moral licensing”, the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good. It explains why people give up plastic bags, then feel justified in taking a long-haul flight, obliterating the carbon savings. It’s also why, if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.

How might this play out in our religion? A focus on those parts of us that are good so we can blind ourselves to those parts of us that are not? A compartmentalism that means we can live externally moral religious lives whilst compromising on some of the most basic ways of loving our neighbours.

One reaction to this (a very common one in our churches) is the call from the pulpit to be MORE moral. The call to purify, to get our moral codes sorted and organised. The degree to which this ever works is rather doubtful, to my mind at least. We are all of us a complex mess of aspiration and failure at the surface and subliminal levels; old sinful habits die hard in me.

What we need to do then, we followers of Jesus, is to return to trying to understand his relationship with morality. We have to remember that the moral leaders of his day clearly regarded him as immoral. He drank, he mixed with the unclean and ungodly, he broke religious rules, he disrupted churchyness, smashed up tables, upset good people and seemed to prefer low-lifes.

Morality was something to be challenged, to be tested, to be subjugated towards love. Morality was not to be seen as the goal, or the most valid measure, not even of righteousness.

Just as well, otherwise we are all screwed.

Is it time for the left to take hold of the Beatitudes again?

jesus-christ

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I often find myself mulling over the passages of the Bible that start in Matthew chapter 5, usually known as ‘The Beatitudes‘. I wrote an extended set of poetic meditations on these at a key point of my faith journey. These poems became a large part of my book ‘Listing’.

At the time, what I thought I knew about being a follower of Jesus had been broken down, smashed, deconstructed, so I desperately wanted to engage once more with the core of what Jesus called us to- and the Beatitudes are really the best place to start.

One of the things you come up against immediately is how impossible it all seems. Who can really live like this? What on earth did Jesus mean? Yet still, for people like me, there is this soaring tingling sense of excitement every time I read Matthew chapter 5. There is something so right about it all- simple, lovely, beautiful.

However, I read these words in the context of living in our western consumer culture, and this also brings me to total dissonance, because in many ways, the words of Jesus are simply not compatible with our way of living.

We can do three things with this;

  1. We can decide that the words have to be read in the wider context of the Bible, and that Jesus was not really meaning it to be our manifesto for all time. He knew that it was impracticable to live like this, so merely wanted to make our sinful state clear to us, in order to accept his forgiveness.
  2. We could use his words as a critique of culture, seeking to understand where our system – in its pursuit of profit, wealth, ascendancy, distraction, celebrity, shallow experience – has got things wrong.
  3. We can really try to live according to the beatitudes.

It will be no surprise to you that I am caught between 2 and 3.

I was reminded of this by an article that Thomas posted on Facebook the other day, in which Peter Ormerod reflects on the decision by the Christian Socialist Movement to ditch the S word, and call themselves instead, Christians On The Left. He began by re writing the beatitudes to make them more culturally appropriate;

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.

“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.

“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”

It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie. And Marko Attila Hoare wrote earlier this week of the dangers in ascribing a particular view to a particular political wing. But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolencesupport for outcasts and outsidersthe redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poorforgivenesstaxationreconciliationfigs.

He rather hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the problematic word was not necessarily ‘Socialism’, but rather that increasingly meaningless word ‘Christian';

Many who might sympathise with the teachings of Jesus would scarper from anything Christian. Often, they’d have good reason to. It can mean judgmentalism, ludicrous doctrine and bad parties. Worse, it can mean bigotry, violence and terrible parties. The Christian right – embodied in the UK by groups like Christian Concern – has been so successful at promoting its ideology that you may well think Christians care only about what jewellerythey’re not allowed to wear, what days they’re forced to work, and gay men having big, gay sex. Christians have often done a great job of killing people who disagree with them, too, which doesn’t really help.

Probably the kindest thing one can day about “Christian” is that it’s meaningless. It somehow describes the beliefs of both the Westboro Baptist church and Desmond Tutu. It’s barely even biblical, appearing only twice in the New Testament (and one of those times merely tells where it was first said). Jesus didn’t use it ever.

In any case, it seems that Jesus cared less about what people believe than what they do. The sheep and goats are separated on account of their actions, not their beliefs. The man who said “no” but did God’s will was favoured over his brother, who said and did the opposite, and so on. Those who thought God was happy with them were brought up short, and told that actually God was happier with the people they saw as sinners. Labels weren’t his thing.

Ormerod concludes by suggesting that Christians need to have a louder voice- to shout about the beatitudes…

If we can’t do this now, in the face of a broken political and economic system as it cuts and slices its way to greater riches by attacking the poor, the sick, the refugee, then what use are we?

Talking of Christians on the Left- check this out;

Tony Campolo on homosexuality…

Over the last few years, a number of people who would previously have been regarded as Evangelical Christian heavyweights appear to have changed their stance on homosexuality significantly. There seems to be a whole wing of Evangelicalism that is ‘coming out’- or do I generalise from the particular?

Is this accommodation with the changing views of culture- albeit lagging behind because of a dragging-anchor theological hermeneutic?  Or is it the fact that Christians are finally catching the scent of freedom and justice on the breeze? Whatever, I celebrate the change.

I will not list the names I am thinking of, as this plays into the hand of the totemic brigade- you know the way it works, the degree to which a person is ‘OK’, ‘Biblical’, ‘Theologically sound’, depends on whether they agree with us on certain totemic issues. I try, but if I am honest I am guilty of a bit of this too…

I was first inspired by listening to Tony Campolo speak back in the early-mid 1980’s. He upset a lot of people at Spring Harvest festival some time around then (I think I was there, but the story might have become more important than fact on this one!) by telling a story something like this;

You know folks, X (can’t remember the exact figure) number of people have starved to death since I started to speak to you tonight.

And you know what is worse? Most of you people here do not give a shit.

And even worse that that, most of you are far more concerned that I just used the word ‘shit’ than the fact that those people have starved to death.

It is hard to convey how genuinely shocking hearing these words from a preacher at Spring Harvest was back then. Campolo has always been rather left field.

However, his stance on homosexuality in books of his I have read went something like this;

It is not the fault of gay people that they were born different, but the Bible is clear that the homosexual act is sin. It is however NOT a sin to be homosexual, as people have no control over their sexual orientation. Therefore to be gay and Christian is to be celibate.

I think he may even have used the old ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ argument. If he did not, others certainly did in his wake.

Contrast this with the clip below. He does not need to talk about the theology- rather he tells a story, which is a very Jesus kind of way of doing theology of course.

The emotional musical soundtrack is a bit naff, but Campolo is always (ahem) Campelling.

 

 

It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Doing church the new/old way…

a church under reconstruction?

Michaela and I have just had a really lovely trip up north to spend some time with friends who are part of Garioch Church. We had been asked to be part of something called a ‘sounding board’- a group of people from outside the church who meet a couple of times a year to reflect on where the church is heading, and what challenges it is facing. We were looked after by Andrew and Jane magnificently and it was a privilege to hear something of their story, not least because it enabled us to reflect anew on our own.

Garioch is an area on the outskirts of the city of Aberdeen- a string of villages over a 10-15 mile area. It is a largely affluent place, with pockets of deprivation, fueled by prosperity from the oil industry. We had never spent any time in that part of Scotland before, and in many ways it felt like a different Scotland to the one we knew. It was busy, bustling, full of industry and people had a pace of life very different to our small west coast town.

The church has been trying to find a way of being authentically present in this new context. What they have done is really interesting and genuinely innovative. Rather than seeking to follow a familiar model of church planting, which goes something like- small group of people with lots of energy start a gathering, invite friends, it grows and so house becomes too small so they rent a hall, it grows so they need to buy own hall, appoint staff, etc, they did this;

Gairioch church wanted to remain based around homes, families, small community. They wanted to be a local, connected expression of faith- engaged in their small context. What they now have are three thriving home groups which are the focus of ‘church’. Once a month they meet in a school hall where they can make a bit more noise and feel a wider sense of connection.

Simple huh? Sounds very like that elusive but often used idea of trying to connect with a New Testament idea of what church looked like?

Alongside this deliberate emphasis on the small, they have found themselves having to grapple with some familiar themes- what does leadership look like in this context? How do you survive community? How do you continue reaching out when there is so much to do within the social context of community itself? What does teaching look like when traditional ‘preaching’ no longer fits? What about all the children? How do we manage all these competing demands with such limited time?

It was rather special to see them feeling for answers to all these questions- to appreciate the freedom that allows them to try, and the long tradition of Christian collectives who have done the same.

My own small community feels special too. We are different, in that we are one (rather isolated) community, and in many ways the pressure to lead, to organise, to manage is very different. As a result of this we are less hierarchical, more driven by the need to be joint travelers, not leaders and followers. This made for some interesting parts of our discussion at the sounding board day. How much do we as leaders, in taking responsibility, remove this in both obvious and more subtle ways from the people we lead?

I came home inspired, humbled and also grateful for the fact that people remain inspired by Jesus towards the new. That Christians in these times are still looking for new ways to love better, to live better, to serve better.

Yesterdays post was a rather cynical one about church names- I removed it as although a whiff of controversy in blogging is usually a good thing, I never like giving offence, and it turned out that some friends of mine have a church whose name I accidentally lambasted. As part of yesterdays post however, I said this, and I will repost it as a prayer for our churches everywhere!

I think the words of Jesus lead us on a path emphasising a whole different set of principles. Rather than our success he promised that the last shall be first. Rather than our satisfaction, he promised a hard road. Rather than storing up comfort and riches he pointed us towards the lost and the least.

When Church is defined as being the provider of success and abundance I also cringe for those whose experience has NOT fitted into this shiny stereotype. People who even whilst in this kind of environment feel unable to share pain and brokenness. People whose lives fall apart for no apparent reason.

I pray that the people in the shiny Churches grow in to abundant life, so that they can become a well of blessing for the rest of us whose lives are full of beautiful aching brokenness…

I think we can take heart and courage, because good things are growing in the cracks of Old Church.

Nihilism…

community 1

Readers of this blog will know that I am not one of those people who bemoan the passing of some kind of golden moral Christian age, when all was in its godly place.

Neither do I believe that our churches are the last repository of goodness within our sinful planet- the last means of the planets salvation.

But just sometimes, the zeitgeist gets me down;

The feeling that the beautiful creature, made a little lower than the angels, is busy shopping.

Is busy watching TV, obsessing about royal babies, caught up in rolling news bulletins showing the same clips of disasters in photogenic parts of the world.

Is concerned only with the next car, the next orgasm, the next holiday.

And I start to wonder again about the old Evangelical cliche about a God-shaped hole in the middle of us all.

I was thinking about this word recently;

ni·hil·ism  (n-lzm, n-)

n.

1. Philosophy

a. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
b. A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
2. Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
3. The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
4. also Nihilism A diffuse, revolutionary movement of mid 19th-century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination.
5. Psychiatry A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one’s mind, body, or self does not exist.
And it took me back the Matthew chapter 5- The words of Jesus that have been known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. All those words about finding a better way of living, characterised by love, service, justice, peacemaking.
And in a moment of bleakness (you have been warned) I wrote this;

Nihilist creed

 

Blessed are the neurotic

But skin them under a cold cloak of positivity

For who wants to see their damaged flesh?

 

Blessed are those who have loved and lost

For this life has few survivors

We will all too soon be dust

 

Blessed are the kind, the shy, the meek

Though their fortune fails and their labours are ignored

While the go-getters steal away the earth

 

Blessed are the God-botherers, the long-skirt-wearers, those frozen-chosen

Let them gather in their holy huddles, to ward off

The must and draft of their empty buildings

 

Blessed may be the charitable, but beware

For friends offering favours will always want something in return

And their helping hands only serve to show the weakness of your own

 

Blessed are those with no dirty secrets, with nothing to keep out the light

Let them shine for a while because we are watching and waiting

Nothing falls further than a second rate saint

 

Blessed are the community-makers, village hall re-painters, singers of the songs of peace

But Rome did not rise without war

So let them march and wave their banners while we sharpen our steel

 

Blessed are those who still have something to believe in

Fools that they are

For we will construct meaning only from what we can buy and sell

 

There is nothing more

Scooping them up for the Kingdom…

koder-sharing-bread

Lovely chat tonight out at our pub discussion thingy- talking about the Kingdom of God.

It is an old discussion for many of us, but we were chewing again on all those mysterious stories that Jesus told us- those The Kingdom of God is like… stories. Mustard seeds, fields of weedy wheat, women making bread with yeast, corn falling on random ground etc. It is all rather mixed up and mysterious, particularly as the stories from Matthew’s gospel tend to have the odd bit of smiting and burning in torment, all of which does not fit with fluffy-Jesus very well.

We talked too about our understanding of The Gospel- which for most of us used to be the saving sinners from hell when they die thing, and how this version of the Gospel comes mostly from a reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans backwardly applied to the rest of the Bible, when actually the Gospel that Jesus talked about was this one;

Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

(Or perhaps)

Its time to turn things around, shake things up, take a long hard look at yourself, because there is a deeper, more beautiful way of living that has come to you- the insurgency of God…

Our discussion then turned to what living as an agent/citizen/participant in this Kingdom/Revolutionary movement/Insurgency might mean.

The old understanding of the Gospel made it all simple- saving the lost so that they might go to heaven. Our primary purpose is evangelism. All other tasks are distractions from the Gospel. I find this narrative very difficult on all sorts of levels now, but the mission of the Kingdom is far more challenging, vitalising, engaging- we leave behind the hard in-out legalism and instead have to practice the disciplines of love (Romans 13:10)

This might in the face of it seem rather woolly and directionless, like encouraging one another to go out and be nice. However love is not just a passive thing- it demands action, particularly in the face of desperate need and danger to those who might be regarded as the recipients of our love.

I began to wonder about the old call to ‘save the lost’, usually applied to those who are not like us, so therefore were in danger of roasting in hell.

My friend Pauling put it rather neatly- Love might involve “Scooping a few people up” she said. Some people need scooped. And we might need to do a bit of scoopage.

We laughed- but despite all those old dangers of paternalism/maternalism, sometimes scooping people up- lifting them, holding them, is just what we need to do. The lost and the least, the broken people, the awkward, the lame, the lonely.

We used to call this Salvation, evidenced by conversion. For some this leads to amazing transformation- there is nothing woolly about this kind of love, or this kind of insurgency.

Is it time to reclaim the language of salvation for the Kingdom of God?

We can call it Scoopage if you like.

Vilifying the ‘other’- benefits and dehumanisation…

A-Jobcentre-office-007

A few days ago I was having a conversation with some friends about my experience of claiming unemployment benefit last year. In the room where a couple of doctors, two ministers of religion and a buyer for a large company- all of us with loads of education, years of contribution to our society, each with families and houses. Most had been in receipt of benefits at some time.

I found myself doing two things, both of which now feel like some kind of betrayal.

Firstly I felt the need to justify claiming benefits- out of a sense of shame. I talked about it (unwittingly) as some kind of sociological experiment. I added in a little bombast about all the years I had paid national insurance contributions and that claiming in my time of need was an act of civil justice that I felt myself entitled to. I don’t know if I convinced my friends, but the words certainly felt hollow in my ears.

The second thing that I heard myself doing was to describe my relationship with the staff at the job centre- how many of them knew me as a social work manager, and responded differently too me- in a confused way perhaps- unable to look me in the eye. I also told the story of how I saw a claimant ( a man I knew from my previous work) treated really badly.

What I was doing of course was distancing myself from the role of ‘claimant’. I was casting myself as an agent of class consciousness, humbling myself like Jesus, but really being ‘different’.

I listened to the stories of the other people in the room as they described their time claiming unemployment benefit- after redundancy for example – and it occurred to me that I was not alone in my ability to find ways of seeing myself as different- not like the others.

In my case this goes deep. I grew up as the child of a single mother, entirely reliant on benefits. We had clothing grants, free school meals, even vitamin enriched orange juice to try to ensure health. As I grew older, I enjoyed a free education, right up to degree level. I am a child of the Welfare State. In some senses I have spent my whole career trying to pay it all back- believing that the only job worth doing was one in service of the poor, the weak the broken. But when I look back at my childhood, the primary emotion I remember was shame, embarrassment, the feeling of being less-than, outside-of. Factually I know that these feelings are not fully rational- how could I help the position I was born into? However, they remain strong even now, and I did not realise how much until recently.

These emotions are pervasive and damaging to those of us who spend any time on benefits. It is hard not to lose our selves, hard to keep rising and creating new things, new ideas, new projections of ourselves. Friends of mine who are on disability benefits are both reminders of this (because I know how hard it is for them) but also transcend this daily. They are able to live fully and deeply in ways that I still find hard. I celebrate them as heroes.

But currently things are being made much harder for people who are on benefits. This from here;

Decades of findings in sociology and psychology tell us that as soon as a group can be defined as separate, as an “outgroup”, people will start to view them differently. We’re all familiar with the negative characteristics people seem to identify with benefit claimants. They’re lazy, dishonest, stupid, “scroungers”, and so on. But there are also deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that likely have even more profound and insidious effects. These have to do with whether benefit claimants are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.

This idea comes from a relatively new body of work in psychology on something called “infrahumanisation“. The infra just stands for “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this milder form of everyday dehumanisation from more extreme kind associated with genocide.

This is a fascinating (and quite scary) process whereby certain groups are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as everybody else. Specifically, while people are fine imagining them feeling basic emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness, they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness or admiration. The subtle sentiments that make us uniquely human.

Not all low status groups are in this invidious position. Some – for example disabled people and the elderly – tend to be disrespected, but are also felt to be warm and unthreatening. There are only a few groups that have the dubious honour of being considered to be both threatening and incompetent. These include poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and (you’ve guessed it) welfare claimants. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us.

You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical “chav” you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.

The reason this is scary is that it takes the “infrahumanised” group out of the warm circle of our moral community. If we don’t think of them as experiencing the same rich inner life that we do; don’t imagine them feeling things in the same way that we do, then we lose some measure of our empathy for them, and consequently our sense of ethical obligation. This would explain why people are so tolerant of the cuts – on an unconscious level, the people being hurt aren’t real, full people. If this is true then fighting the cuts is going to be much, much harder than just fighting myths and misapprehensions.

The most shocking thing about this kind of dehumanisation is that it is found most present where the respectable folk gather- in our churches, in out prosperous neighbourhoods, around the coffee machines in posh coffee bars. It is how good people justify privilege and inequality- be that material/financial or the blessing of emotional/psychological resources that allow us to gain a position of security that others fail to reach.

But let us remember that shit happens. Each one of us is only an unpredictable event away from needing to claim benefits. If this happens, we will start out with a conviction that we are different, but perhaps we are not.

There are many reasons for followers of Jesus to stand against prejudice and dehumanisation. The hope of a better society, the call to include the outsiders, the call to bring justice to the oppressed. Perhaps too we can just remember that if we allow the current nasty victimisation heard in the press and the politicians mouths to go unchallenged, we all lose.

Paulo Coelho on Jesus…

Paulo Coelho

Great article in The Guardian today- an interview with author Paulo Coelho. Here he is, taking about Jesus;

The Jesus of the gospels was, Coelho argues, similarly contradictory. “Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know?” says Coelho, his brown eyes sparkling. “If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity. So Jesus says: ‘Turn the other face,’ and then he can get a whip and go woosh! The same man who says: ‘Respect your father and mother’ says: ‘Who is my mother?’ So this is what I love – he is a man for all seasons.”

Like Jesus, he’s not expressing a coherent doctrine that can be applied to life like a blueprint? “You can’t have a blueprint for life. This is the problem if you’re religious today. I am Catholic myself, I go to the mass. But I see you can have faith and be a coward. Sometimes people renounce living in the name of a faith which is a killer faith. I like this expression – killer faith.”

Coelho proposes a faith based on joy. “The more in harmony with yourself you are, the more joyful you are, and the more faithful you are. Faith is not to disconnect you from reality, it connects you to reality.”

In this view, he thinks he has Jesus on his side. “They [those who model their sacrifice on Christ's] remember three days in the life of Jesus when he was crucified. They forget that Jesus was politically incorrect from beginning to end. He was a bon vivant – travelling, drinking, socialising all his life. His first miracle was not to heal a poor blind person. It was changing water into wine and not wine into water.”