Ways to pray in public places…

pints of beer

It has been a long day. I was off early to Lochgilphead as I was a trainer on a course for social workers who are about to participate in our emergency out of hours duty rotas across Argyll. Part of todays task was to look at some child protection issues- including the inevitable photographs of injuries that been inflicted on kids- little boys with cigarette burns on their feet and tiny girls with finger bruises wrapped around their faces. I am always broken a little bit when I see these photographs.

So I should be- but this relates also to my own childhood memories, fractured as they are.

However, in the midst of all this, I had a transcendent moment. Don’t get me wrong- no angels sang, there was no whiff of incense or pure white lights. What I was captured by was the sudden depth of the Kingdom of God- woven through everything, and this thing called the shalom of God. What might it mean to hope for a future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, and in which all things are made new?

A world in which parents do not damage children, and damaged children do not do damage in turn? A world where love sets the agenda in more things than not?

Come the evening I was sat in a pub with some friends. We have been meeting to discuss a book by Brian McLaren called A New Kind of Christianity. Tonight however we did discuss the book, but I suggested we try to find a way, in the busyness of the public bar, to pray.

I started with something that we had used on an island recently, in the middle of a wilderness with eagles riding the late spring storms over our heads. I thought that if God was there, then he was here too.

  • I asked people to find a place of quietness inside themselves- to find a neutral spot on wall or table to look at, and to focus on their breathing
  • Next I asked them to listen to the sounds all around them in the pub. The hubbub of conversation, the chink of glasses, the scrape of knives of plates, phones ringing jokes raising burst of laughter. I asked them to notice as many different sounds as possible and acknowledge each one
  • Then I asked them to listen again to deeper sounds- the sounds behind the sounds. As we do this, a remarkable thing happens. The hubbub kind of fades and blurs together- it ebbs and flows like the sea, and behind it all are other noises- the hum of all creation. Some people still noticed things like the ringing of a bell on the till, or the footsteps of a lovely friendly waitress
  • I then asked people to imagine that the sound behind the sounds was the music of God. God in and through it all, rejoicing in the beauty of us all. Rejoicing in the drinks, the food and the lives being shared. It was not hard to do so.

Next I passed round a pen and paper, and asked people imagine what God might want for all these people in the bar. What might he hope for them. I asked people to write something down, and to fold the paper over so the next person could not see it, then pass it on.

This is what people wrote, in no particular order;

Eternal life

Freedom!

I see your heart and know your sadness and want to bring you my peace.

Peace, hope, love and understanding

Shalom

Peace

And there, with a pint in my hand, it was holy.

Cardinals, McLaren and the charge of hypocrisy…

Cardinal O'Brian

No one could have missed the story of Cardinal O’Brian and the scandal engulfing the Catholic Church at the moment, but just in case you have, it goes something like this;

Cardinal O’Brian, the only British Cardinal, starts off (20 years ago) as a moderate within the church, upsetting conservative Catholics with his liberal views on contraception, homosexuality and whether priests should marry. Over time however, as the Vatican became increasingly hard line, he seemed to swing towards the right, becoming a strident and belligerent voice proclaiming the need to Christian morality, family values and for Conservative Catholicism. There was even talk of him being the next Pope.

Last year he made a splash because of his rather bizarre comment comparing Gay Marriage to slavery. I wrote about it at the time, here. 

Then, totally out of the blue, in the wake of the shocking resignation of the Pope, just as Cardinal O’Brian is about to go to Rome to take part in the election of the next Pope, 4 men- three priests and one ex-priest, let it be known that he used his power and authority to impose sexual acts on them whilst they were young men.

He initially denies it. The Church starts to close ranks. Then he admits it and resigns his office.

I have avoided discussing this matter up until now on this blog- partly because I did not want anything I wrote to seem triumphalist. I have ‘come out’ as a Christian who has a very different position on  the (unfortunately) totemic issue of homosexuality to that espoused by the Cardinal (and many other good people, including close friends.)

I was also staggered by the scale of the fall of this man- for whom I feel great sympathy. I know what it is like to be trapped in an unyielding and inflexible hermaneutic- to resort to compartmentalism to cope with the cognitive dissonance. Many people describe O’Brian as a good man, a kind man who has the capacity for so much good. None of us are just one thing, we are all many- and those who attack him should beware throwing the first stone.

Finally, I feel a collective shame for the Church. Scandals like this confirm the worst of prejudice about what the Church has become- it tells the world that we are that most despicable thing- we are hypocrites. This story proves our guilt- and the guilt is collective. As soon as we (the Church) begin to stand on moral high ground, we will always be in danger of the crumbling cliff edge.

That is NOT to say that we should have no moral voice. Our job is to be a people who present a radical alternative. We are to be an irritant  and conscience of those in power, not because we are better than others, but because we are prepared to try this thing called love. All morality is captured by this simple word- love. As soon as love is subordinate to morality, then morality becomes the worst form of religion.

So in this sense, Cardinal O’Brian is both perpetrator and victim of a system of faith that makes individual salvation from private sin the most important issue. It IS an important issue- but we all have logs in our own eyes. And there are other issues…

Which were brought to me again when listening to clip in my previous post.

brian-mclaren

Brian McLaren, speaking in St Paul’s Cathedral mentioned that he had a son who was gay. I have read and listened to a lot of his stuff, but did not know this. It seems that he performed a marriage ceremony for his son and partner last year, which predictably got him in to a lot of trouble. A case in point is this entry on his blog, in response to a man who had publicly ‘broken rank’ with him as a result of his stance on homosexuality, and his decision to participate in his sons marriage ceremony. Some of his response is as follows;

My view on human sexuality has indeed changed over a period of thirty years, and actually, the views of most conservative Christians have also been changing over that period. It wasn’t too long ago that the only conservative position was, “It’s a choice and an abomination.” When that position became untenable due to increasing data, the conservative position evolved to “it’s a changeable disposition, and we know how to change it.” When fewer and fewer people who claimed to have been reoriented were able to sustain the reorientation, the position shifted to “it’s a hard-to-change disposition, but it can be done with great difficulty.” More recently, I hear conservatives say “the disposition may be unchangeable but the behavior is a choice, so people may choose to live a celibate life or a heterosexual life, even against their orientation.” All that’s to say that it would be unfair of me to break fellowship with people who are themselves on a journey, just because they aren’t where I am at this point…

In my case, I inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin, so although we should not condemn (i.e. stone them), we must tell people to “go and sin no more.” Believe me, for many years as a pastor I tried to faithfully uphold this position, and sadly, I now feel that I unintentionally damaged many people in doing so. Thankfully, I had a long succession of friends who were gay. And then I had a long succession of parishioners come out to me. They endured my pronouncements. They listened and responded patiently as I brought up the famous six or seven Bible passages again and again. They didn’t break ranks with me and in fact showed amazing grace and patience to me when I was showing something much less to them.

Over time, I could not square their stories and experiences with the theology I had inherited. So I re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) … we had been wrong on this issue. In this process, I did not reject the Bible. In fact, my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the hermeneutical assumptions on which many now-discredited traditional interpretations were based and defended. I was able to distinguish “what the Bible says” from “what this school of interpretation says the Bible says,” and that helped me in many ways.

So – many years before I learned I had members of my own close family who were gay – my view changed. As you can imagine, when this issue suddenly became a live issue in my own family, I was relieved that I was already in a place where I would not harm them as (I’m ashamed to say this) I had harmed some gay people (other people’s sons and daughters) earlier in my ministry…

This post hints at what must have been great personal pain through all this, but also a great strength- the sort that feels (to me at least) right. McLaren ends his post like this;

I want to add one more brief comment. You ask, if we change our way of interpreting the Bible on this issue (my words, not yours) “- what else will happen next?” Here’s what I hope will happen. After acknowledging the full humanity and human rights of gay people, I hope we will tackle the elephant in the room, so to speak – the big subject of poverty. If homosexuality directly and indirectly affects 6 – 30% of the population, poverty indirectly and directly affects 60 – 100%. What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value – far beyond monetary or corporate value – of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus’ proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, proclaiming God’s amazing grace to all creation.

What he is able to do here is lift our eyes from a  grubby obsession with what goes on in people private bedroom space to the call of the Kingdom of God.

This is the greater charge of hypocrisy that I feel myself constantly to be under. How all the distractions and comforts of my life and lifestyle prevent me from living as a full agent of  the commonwealth of God as spelled out above.

In this, as with the Cardinal, I am reliant on Grace, and the hope that I may yet become what I aspire to be…

Chocolate and the New Kingdom…

chocolat-470-75

I offer you this for St Valentine’s day…

Michaela and I sat and watched the film Chocolat last night. We have both seen it before, but were moved again by its power.

If you have not seen it, it is set in a French village soon after the second world war into which a stranger and her little girl who come to open a chocolate shop. There is magic about the woman and about the chocolate. Her kindness and the glorious excess of her chocolate creations start to change people- to open them up, to make them hope again. And there are those who do not like this- particuluarly the ultra religious mayor, who is able to control the local parish priest. There is a puritanical backlash, against both the woman and against some gypsies who are in the area.

Except, the magic is still in the woman, and in the chocolate, and there is a change. I will say no more, not wanting to spoil the film for  you- but there is plenty still to enjoy in the gentle comedy and the lovely acting (Judy Dench, Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche.)

There is also some rather profound theology. After the pivoting point of the film, this happens;

It reminded me so much of Babettes Feast- the image of a God of exuberance, who draws us into a dance of joy, of consumation, of love.

So, my friends, may your day be full of Chocolat…

Economic growth; lie number two…

How do we know that we are in recession- double dip or triple dip as it may be? What mysterious yardsticks are used in the Bank of England to make them reach for the strings on which we all dangle?

economic_growth_3

Above all, it is this one; Economic Growth.

Economic growth usually refers to the growth in value of GDP (gross domestic product).

The total output of the country – the value of all the food produced, all the pharmaceuticals manufactured, cars assembled and services rendered – forms GDP.

GDP also takes into account the effect of imports and foreign investment.

If GDP is bigger this year than last year, then the UK is experiencing ‘economic growth’.

But inflation will also have driven up prices since last year, and thus GDP. To assess whether the economy is actually growing, the rate of inflation has to be subtracted from the nominal rate of growth to get the real rate of growth.

Lets be clear about this- economic growth happens when the overall value of what have, what we make, what we own, gets bigger. Our system is set up to be always dissatisfied with what we have, with what we are. No growth is regarded as stagnation, shrinking is recession, and recession is to be avoided at all costs- particularly at the cost of those who have the least.

We can only have economic growth if we continue living the kind of lifestyles that we are living now- if we continue spending money on the next gadget, another car, the latest trend in exotic food, the newest cut of skirt and suit. We can only have economic growth if we exhibit enough collective desire for new bathrooms, conservatories, paved driveways.

Increasingly we can only have economic growth if we can persuade other people to be just like us- to want the things that we want, the food that we eat, the mobile phones that we have glued to our ears. And so was born the globalisation of markets; the ubiquitousness of product. The penetration of our ways of being into every far corner of the earth.

Is this a problem?

Well, perhaps we need to distinguish between different periods of economic growth. In the UK we went from being an agrarian economy, whose countryside could only support a certain population number to being a place of canals, coal mines, factories and population explosion- all in the space of around 100 years. During this time our economy was growing exponentially- rather like that of China now. Victorian Britain was a place of huge inequality and the accumulation of vast wealth by the few on the backs of the labour of many. Like China now.

Of course to achieve this continued economic growth, Britain also needed an export market and control of sources of cheap natural resources-  for this we colonised and enslaved half the world.

More recently our economic growth has slowed- we achieve figures of one, two, three percent, and call it success. This ‘success’ is nothing to do with society changing, but everything to do with a desire to stay the same. Our growth is conditional on the pursuit of technological innovation by those who would sell us more product- rendering those we already have as obsolete.

Economists have a word for our willingness to spend- to slap down the cash rather than salting it away- they call it confidence. A healthy economy is full of confident consumers. Or, as Wikipedia put it;

Schumpeterian growth is an economic theory named after the 20th century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Unlike other economic growth theories, his approach explains growth by innovation as a process of creative destruction, which captures the dual nature of technological progress: in terms of creation, entrepreneurs introduce new products or processes in the hope that they will enjoy temporary monopoly-like profits as they capture markets. In doing so, they make old technologies or products obsolete: this is the destruction[disambiguation needed] referred to by Schumpeter, that could also be referred to as the annulment of previous technologies which makes them obsolete, and “which destroys the rents generated by previous innovations” (Aghion 855).

pile-o-cellphones1

Now, back to the LIE that are at the centre of all this. We are told that for our economy, even our society, to survive and prosper, we have to have sustained economic growth. The spectre of the Great Depression hangs over us- lives ruined, people starving in the streets. Economic growth is a holy cow that we have to keep feeding.

Everywhere we hear people asking questions of this cow however;

  • Is it sustainable? Can we really just keep producing more and more? Are we not burning up our resources at an alarming rate? Are we not slowly poisoning our planet with it all?
  • Is it fair? Can we really continue to live in a world where our lifestyles are dependent on the raw materials and cheap labour of others who are half way across the world?
  • Is it working? Given the instability in the system, can we really trust it to maintain our lifestyles? Is it not all just coming unraveled anyway?
  • Is it not just terribly wasteful? Do we really need all this stuff? Is there not a simpler way to live?
  • Is it making us happy, fulfilled, complete?

The relationships between economic growth and equality within society is one that has been the cause of much argument- think about the Marxist analysis, or of recent arguments that suggest that stable economic growth always leads to greater equality.

The argument has taken a new turn recently however- this from here;

Labour is drawing on research by the New Democrat Network (NDN) central to the Obama re-election campaign to shape its own election thinking.

The research was described by the Obama campaign as its North Star. It tracked three trends in the US economy between 1992 and 2009, showing how two – higher growth and higher productivity – had not been matched by a rise in living standards for the majority…

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and a close student of US politics, told the Guardian: “Back in 1992 the famous dictum of Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville was: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ It contained the implicit assumption that economic growth ensured rising living standards.

“Today that no longer can be taken for granted, as this important research by NDN and the Resolution Foundation shows. I’ve worked closely with the NDN in recent years and that collaboration confirms to me this is one of the defining challenges for today’s progressives on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Similarly, work in Britain maps how growth before 2008 did not guarantee a rise in living standards, and how the bottom half of society suffered. UK wage stagnation is more recent than in the US – theirs started in the 1970s, the UK’s in the early 2000s.

And that is just within our own society. No mention of this sort of thing;

poverty

So, what is the alternative? Can our society, our economy, really kick our addiction to economic growth as the primary measure of our worth?

What might replace it?

Can commerce ever be based on a fair exchange of skills based on need (although surely there is always room too for celebration, for art, for pleasure.)

Can we learn to live in ways that are sustainable- that only cost the earth what it can afford to give to us?

If the answer to these questions are ‘yes’ (and I deeply hope that they are) then might these not result in negative economic growth?

Because in the Kingdom that Jesus talked about, things often get turned upside down and inside out- the last become first and the least of these become the keys to the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is not interested in statistics, in abstract measurement- it is rooted in the here and now- the shit and blood and spit of being ME, and my individual relationship with you. Everything else just gets in the way.

Falling into the arms of the Empire…

genesis

For years now we have had a more or less regular ‘housegroup’, which meets (as decreed somewhere in the Bible) on Tuesday evenings. A few months ago we moved out of the living room into a pub- it was time to change things around a bit. We have been using the shape of some of Brian McLaren’s writing to aid our discussion- from ‘A new kind of Christianity’. It is a great book, and has started to put some firmness into parts of my faith that had been decidedly muddied by all of the Emerging Church discussions and debates. (Not that I regret a single question mark!)

Last week we continued a discussion about how we might understand the storyline of the Bible. McLaren (or Bazzer as we decided to call him) suggested that many of us had become used to reading the whole of the Bible backwards through all those towering figures of our theological landscape, back through the Reformation, into the middle ages, then the dark ages, and in particular, the days of the Holy Roman Empire, which Bazzer considers the real cusp of the matter. At this point the new religion (Christianity) became mixed up not only with Empire, but also with Greco-Roman philosophy. The end result it that it is really hard to see backwards because of all the edifices that we have built along the way.

Read the book for more detail on all this, but we tried to chew a little on the Polarity of Greco-Roman thought- giving us the polar opposites of Platonic perfection and the fallen state of mankind. We did this by looking again at those early stories in Genesis- of Adam and Eve with their troubled offspring, the subsistence hunter-gatherers who became farmers, then city builders, and fanally Empire makers- the rise/fall of man.

Here, the Roman Zeus- living in a removed, perfect state, setting impossible goals for his ephemeral people to reach towards, and seeking to rescue a few only be the skin of their teeth (eventually through a legalistic confidence trick with his son Jesus) starts to come unraveled. Zeus is replaced by Elohim.

Looking backwards, we read the early stories of Genesis in the Greco-Roman philosophical polarity- perfection/fallen. The garden was perfect, and as we mucked it all up, we were cast out, imperfect, therefore God could not be around us- Plato again.

But Elohim never mentions perfection- he talks of things being ‘good’, or even ‘very good’. In these stories, the journey from the garden is not one of lost perfection, but rather lost innocence. Rather than going from a perfect state casting us out into the darkness, Elohim makes clothing, avoids issuing the death penalty as promised to those who eat the fruit of the tree, and so on and so on. Elohim constantly engages, constantly circles back into the rise/fall of mankind. Even when they start empire building.

As we talked about this, I saw Michaela becoming frustrated. Eventually she spoke up- “So why did Jesus have to die? What was his mission if not to rescue, to save?”

I have been thinking about this question and the discussion we had the other night. Unsurprisingly, it leaves me with more questions;

If there has been a ‘fall’ of man, is it really the kind of fall I grew up talking about- one of individual sin, inherited by each subsequent generation as part of our human DNA? This kind of ‘fall’ keeps us trapped in the old Platonic polarity. It allowed Evangelical Christianity to focus on private morality to the exclusion of almost all else and  the purpose of the death of Jesus in this understanding is to give a chosen few backdoor perfection- undeserved, but gloriously exclusive.

But there is this other version of the fall of man(kind) encountered in Genesis. It is a fall upwards- away from our root and branch engagement in the soil of the world that we live in- towards enclosure and management of the land first for storage of food, then for personal profit. The more we have the more we want and our ambitions grow to the sky like the tower of Babel. Then there is this word again- Empire. If there is a polar opposite to the Shalom of Elohim it is Empire. Power used and abused. Richness accumulated at the point of sword and on the backs of the slavery of others. From Genesis to Revelation this the Bible is shadowed by Empire. This fall is not an individual one, it is collective.

But Elohim does not retreat even from Empire. He is there in and through it all. Hating some of it, raging against it sometimes- particularly when his people accommodated with it- even became the enslavers themselves.

Back to Michaela’s question- Jesus death, in relation to this collective fall can be understood clearly in his own use of the words of Isaiah, spoken from exile, in slavery to empire;

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61

Here it is- the kernel of the nut. The Shalom of Elohim; the New Kingdom. A totally different kind of empire. One based on love of one another, on the joy of life and the refusal of the power of Empire.

The first kind of fall- the individualistic perfect/fallen polarity seems to have allowed for Christianity to exist within empire with hardly a ripple. It allows us to set aside the revolutionary stuff and focus on saving the few for the really important stuff, not the Aristotelian stuff of boring reality, but the Platonic promise of eternal perfection.

But the New Kingdom can not exist in the other kind of fallen world without challenging empire. We can not live alongside poverty, injustice disease, broken lives, etc without wishing, praying, working upon it the Shalom of Elohim.

Or can we? The forces of empire are strong after all…

Michaela told a story right at the end of a place she had worked- a job that was supposed to be all about community building- encouraging participation and engagement with marginalised people and groups. A new manager came in who knew all the language, but seemed driven only towards establishing and using power; she was building an empire. The rules of the organisation had changed overnight. Suddenly success was measured by a business model- by conquests won over other ‘competing’ community groups. It tore Michaela apart.

And there you have it; the shalom of God opened wide, but the Empire rises again. But Elohim is waiting…

Everyone needs heroes…

I watched a lovely film the other night- a Spanish language film called Even The Rain.  

A Spanish film crew helmed by idealistic director Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) and his cynical producer Costa (Luis Tosar) come to Bolivia to make a revisionist epic about the conquest of Latin America – on the cheap. Carlos Aduviri is dynamic as “Daniel,” a local cast as a 16th century native in the film within a film. When the make-up and loin cloth come off, Daniel sails into action protesting his community’s deprivation of water at the hands of multi-national corporations.

When riots break out in Cochabamba, protesting excessive fees for water, production is interrupted and the convictions of the crew members are challenged. Sebastian and Costa are forced to make an unexpected emotional journey in opposite directions.

It may sound a bit ‘worthy’, but it was very well made, well acted, and full of sharp irony. The crew were fired up by the injustice and genocide waged on the indigenous people of the new world by the Conquistadors, but found the modern day equivalent injustice inflicted by poverty and multinational corporations almost invisible.

Along the way we heard a lot about Bartholme de las Casas.  

I confess I had never heard of him. I have been fascinated (and horrified) by how the conquerors of the New World were able to believe that they were doing God’s work as the slaughtered and plundered in the name of the Holy Empire. It is refreshing and inspiring to discover a man of God who called it for what it was.

Arriving as one of the first settlers in the New World he participated in, and was eventually compelled to oppose the atrocities committed against the Native Americansby the Spanish colonists. In 1515, he reformed his views, gave up his Indian slaves and encomienda, and advocated, before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on behalf of rights for the natives. In his early writings, he advocated the use of African slaves instead of Natives in the West-Indian colonies; consequently, criticisms have been leveled at him as being partly responsible for the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. Later in life, he retracted those early views as he came to see all forms of slavery as equally wrong…

Bartolomé de las Casas spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, especially by trying to convince the Spanish court to adopt a more humane policy of colonization. And although he failed to save the indigenous peoples of the Western Indies, his efforts resulted in several improvements in the legal status of the natives, and in an increased colonial focus on the ethics of colonialism. Las Casas is often seen as one of the first advocates for universal human rights

Don’t forget that all this was taking place 200 years before Wilberforce, our great protestant anti slavery hero.

Neither was Casas alone.

In September 1510, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo led by Pedro de Córdoba; appalled by the injustices they saw committed by the slaveowners against the Indians, they decided to deny slave owners the right to confession. Las Casas was among those denied confession for this reason.[14] In December 1511, a Dominican preacher Father Fray Antonio de Montesinos preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples. He is said to have preached, “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”

These men were serving the Kingdom of God in the shadow of the Empire, and for this we can call them Heroes.

Secret agent…

There is a strange appeal in the idea of the secret agent. All that subterfuge and daring in the service of the higher calling.

I am convinced that for most of our time, we question too little, protest far too infrequently, and in the name of politeness tolerate far too much injustice. Or at least I do- perhaps you are different.

Of course most of the time, spitting out splenetic screeching opposition will achieve little. This is where the secret bit comes in. Time to work in the shadows of the Empire- whatever this Empire might be.

The insurgency of God is rising.

Shhhhhh.

Or to put it another way- this from the Emergent Village daily minimergent;

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.

Daniel H. Pink

Where is the new ideology?

It is an old academic political discussion- the end of Ideology- by which I mean the end of the time of battling grand political/economic theories that inspired and fuelled our attempts to understand and shape our society. Thatcher put an end to all that in the UK- not because she had no ideology, but because she cleared the field of all opposition. Capitalism and ‘The Market’ triumphed and gifted us with the so called free movement of capital, trickle down, neoliberalism and globalisation.

Over the next 20 years, nation after nation fell in line, cajoled by the promise of great wealth or manipulated by powerful organisations who needed scarce resources or a new market.

None of this is a surprise, but what is more noticeable is the lack of viable alternative. Sure there are voices of protest- not least the Occupy Movement- but to demand change is not necessarily the same thing as proposing an alternative (I know that the OM are in discussion about all sorts of issues, but I would suggest that no real coherent alternative ideology has yet emerged.)

There was an interesting article in the Guardian today by Aditya Chakrabortty. Here are a couple of quotes;

When the history of how a good crisis went to waste gets written up, it will surely contain a big chapter on the failure of our academic elites. Because just like the politicians, the taxpayer-funded intellectuals at our universities have missed the historic opportunities gifted to them by the financial collapse. And it will be the rest of us who pay the price…

…So have the non-economists grasped their moment? Have they hell. Look at the academic conferences held over the past few weeks, at which the latest and most promising research in each discipline is presented, and it’s as if Lehman Brothers never fell over…

Chakrabortty did a search of recent sociological and social science conferences and academic papers and concluded that pretty much the disciplines were not interested in challenging the core assumptions of the dominant ideology.

So where is the challenge to come from, if not from the academic elite? And more importantly, where are the alternative ideologies going to emerge from?

I watched the two Che Guevara films recently- a time when ideology believed that revolution was possible and even worth killing for. Revolution meant overcoming the ruling elite, empowering the poor and dispossessed and bringing egalitarian justice to society. Whilst I abhor the violence, most of us will instinctively feel the pull of these ideas.

Most of us too will have heard the spoilers- the voices that suggest that such ideas are unrealistic, unobtainable, work against human instincts and have been proved to serially fail because of the repeated failures of communist regimes throughout the world. Therefore the only option left is to continue as we are- with a few tweaks to satisfy the left field.

I want to raise my own voice in protest at this hopelessness. I want to invite my friends into a journey to find a new kind of ideology. We are not there yet, but I think we have some clues;

Start small. Start local.

Buy less, want less, make more.

Reduce waste, increase sharing and holding things in common.

Increase joint social enterprise.

In all things be aware of the impact on those who have little.

In all things be aware of the impact on the environment.

For me, the other academic/social/political group that has been near silent in the offering of a viable alternative is this one- the Church. Because as I look at the economic list above, it seems to me to be also a SPIRITUAL list. Without the life of the Spirit within us, we are mere animals, scratching and scraping at one another for the meatiest parts of the carcass.

So perhaps it all comes down to the word Love. If Economics are subordinate to love, then what might the theories look like? If political science was shaped by love, how might we organise ourselves differently? Even as I write this I feel the rise of cynicism, but- love remains.

I think this is the ideology of the Kingdom of God, and the viral vitality that we can and should bring to all these debates. And we do not have to wait until the universities write papers and hold conferences- because we can make our own small economy now- here.

Kingdom of heaven, retrospective…

sharing a meal

Like many others who have found such life in and around this thing we have come to call ‘emerging church’, I have such a love for these words ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

For many years they were words of condemnation for me…

Something other.

Something distant and dangerous.

Something I had to fight to enter, and at best, I might scrape my way into on a technicality.

Something that was wrapped up in charismatic ideas of spiritual warfare and triumphalistic ecstatic wierdness.

Something that in order to serve, I needed to be Holy. And I was not.

I remember that moment when I began to catch a glimpse of a different meaning of the words- as spoken by Jesus.

Of the Kingdom of God as something that grows inside me, like an infectious bubble of blessing.

As something that is here now, but also still to come.

As something that I participate in, but is beyond my understanding.

That welcomes the weak, and the weary, and the child like.

And is glimpsed, almost as a mirage, in our communing and loving and laughing together.

And the call on us, the agents of this kingdom, not to turn the whole world blind or salty, but to shine light on truth and beauty, and to season the flavours of Jesus wherever we taste them.

If these ideas are new-ish to you, or you would like to hear some more about the context that Jesus was speaking into, when he spoke of the Kingdom- check out this excellent Aussie radio programme…

Idolatry/ideology…

house of commons

So, the politics in the UK takes another strange turn.

The papers are full of details of expenses claimed by Members of Parliament- from the maintenance of moats, to pornographic videos.

The Speaker of the house has resigned during a sitting of parliament- for the first time ever.

Change is in the air- both in terms of the party in power, who may yet be forced to call an early election- and also the pressing need for reform of some aspects of our political system. Whether or not there will be real change, it remains to be seen. The British tend to change constitutional things slowly, and pragmatically.

Is this crisis a good thing? A good shake up and clear out of the system is sometimes good- although the moral and ethical tone of the current debate tends to be a little difficult to stomach- coming as it does from the Daily Telegraph. It is not so long ago that the out-going Conservative party fell into a trough of sleaze and allegations of ministers being bribed with envelopes stuffed with money. The Telegraph had a different set of priorities then.

But the current scandal seems to confirm a base view of politics that views all politicians as ‘the same’, feeding from the same honey pot, out for what they can get. If such a view persists, then our system of democracy is under threat.

The problem with this view for many of us, is that for many years, we believed that all politicians were NOT the same. There were ours, and theirs. Ours were politicians of conscience- men (and women) of passion and integrity- committed to an ideal of social justice and socialist principles. Theirs were out to protect their privileges- slaves to big business and multinationals- committed to maintaining inequality.

This simplistic, dualistic view of the world defined my life for years. It was a comfortable, safe place- which allowed easy categorisation according to ideology for just about everything. Things were either politically correct, or they were not. There is a naive simplicity which is still attractive to me as I remember these things-

Food- chosen according to origin. South Africa and Israel (Apartheid and Palestine) were to be avoided, as was anything by Nestle (Because of their promotion of Baby milk to sub Saharan Africa, with devastating effects.) Meat was forsaken because of the cutting of rainforests to grow beefburgers for MacDonalds, and Tuna was bad because Dolphins died in drift nets.

Clothing- was based on cheap jeans and slogan- laden tee shirts, carrying ‘radical’ messages. Accessories came from Oxfam, or the embryonic fair trade movement.

Music- had a message, or it was not worth listening to. And it had to be out message. There were some exceptions- allowed because they were good fun, and did not explicitly support the enemy.

And so on- you get the picture! All of life was seen through a world view that was defined by a particular politico-ideological perspective.

It was not simple for long. Our Heroes had clay feet. We had Kinnock, who blew it, Smith, who died on us, Blair who sold out and got in bed with Bush, and finally Brown who is merely presiding over the death throes of a party who long ago lost any sense of ideology and value base.

The thing is, I was (and am) a Christian. What I found was that it was possible to approach Jesus through the same narrow perspective. I genuinely believed that it was next to impossible to be a Christian and a Conservative. One meant life and justice for the oppressed, the other meant siding with the oppressors, which Jesus never would. For us, Jesus joined the Labour Movement. He was one of the boys. God was a socialist.

So how much harder is it then, to see the death of ideology over the last 20years? The end of politics driven by passion, and instead the easy slick accommodation of Blair- followed by the brutal prudence of Brown. A Labour Movement that found it possible to join a modern day American Crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan. That thought increased expenditure on health and education was the sum of it’s ambition. That presided over a widening gulf between the rich and poor of the nation.

And now a Labour government that came into power in 1997 promised to clean up politics. It promised a ethical foreign policy, and transparent funding processes…. and yet it ended up 12 years later with- this.

So, to the point of this piece.

Ideology can bring life. It can inspire enormous collective endevour. It pushed us towards a dream of living a better, more sustainable, ethical life. But is always falls short.

And when we promote an ideology above the author of everything- then this becomes, idolatry.

brazen serpent

So let us watch the political twistings and turnings with interest. But let us watch as people whose allegiance is not first to an ideology, but to a King and a New Kingdom.