I had a conversation with a dear friend recently. He is a Church of England priest, so although we share very similar world views our theology has points of divergence. In this conversation I was trying to describe what ‘spirituality’ still meant to me and how I seek adventure in new meaning. Because my friend is full of grace, he listened and talked it through with me, even though he found some of what I said troubling – I entirely umderstand why, but remain unrepentant.
My points went something like this. When trying to understand the spiritual path I am drawn towards, I use these tools;
What sings in my soul. I know this sounds like airy-fairy, self centred post-modernism, but I think at some level it has always been true, for all of us. I am just more at peace with letting go the doctrine and codified belief systems that no longer resonate. (I know too that the things that sing in my soul always resonate with the teachings of Jesus, but increasingly I am open to a wider set of reference points.)
Things that are to do with love, beauty or brokenness. This is hard to describe other than to say that when one or more of these things is communicated, my own broken humanity responds in a way that makes everything technicolour.
What I have recieved from people/sources I trust. You could use the word ‘apostle’ here. We learn tihngs from people who have already taken us along the way. The dangers of trusting the wrong voices are obvious – consider the way that social media shapes us by feeding us bias – but ideas and inspiration is often an external thing, offered by others.
What I have found to be useful. This last point relates to how spiritual ideas might be seen to shape both individuals and wider human communities towards good.
The last point is the one that I want to talk about a little more. It has been obvious throughout most of my life that mainstream religion, certainly in the West, has had far too little to say about social and economic justice. More recently, it has had little to say about climate change/justice either. It is not that individuals within faith traditions has not brought huge energy to bear in challenging these great injustices, but rather that mainstream theology has not offered a coherant story or an idea that has enabled the radical changes that I believe to be necessary. By and large, faith seems to have contributed to the status quo as determined by those powers that want things to stay the same.
For example (in case you needed it) I grew up within an evangelical Christian tradition that promoted individual salvation (after we die) above all else. They called this ‘the gospel’. It took me years to realise that this way of seeing the world/reading the Bible/understanding the mission of Jesus was full of subjectivity and distortions, and that there had always been other ways to approach the story. The story has more to teach us if we allow ourselves to be taught.
What still interests me (and keeps me returning, despite everything) is how faith motivates us to reach for something better, somthing deeper, more ‘true’, more loving, particularly in the context of a changing world facing huge challenges. To put it another way, what ways of seeing the world/reading the bible/understanding the mission (gospel) of Jesus might be USEFUL to us?
I think I have found some intriguing clues- not answers as such, but certainly ones that invite me to respond. A lot of this came to me in part through the writings of Fr Richard Rohr, particularly his most recent book ‘The Universal Christ’. I tried to describe some of this in a post a couple of years ago. You could say that Rohr has fulfilled that ‘apostle’ role I described previously, and also that as I read his worlds, something deep inside me said YES. There was great love and beauty in the whole story.
Also, his theological ideas seemed useful in a way that nothing else had for some time. He painted an idea of a unified, interdependent, interconnected world in which ‘The Christ’ was another word for everything. In this reading, God loves things by becoming them. These ideas came from Rohr’s Fransican tradition, and have been tested over time by deep theological thinkers, but it really feels to me that they are needed now, more than ever before.
In this reading, the purpose of faith is to shine light on the great goodness of all created things and the great interdpendence of all created things. It is also to note the brokeness within the nature of creation which we, as part of the whole, seek to heal and to ‘save’. This is not then restricted to saving the chosen frozen in a mythical and much feared afterlife, but rather about the here and now and what is within our grasp. How might such a reading change our relationship to the world?
I would argue that it changes everything.
Those of you who are travellers in a faith tradition will no doubt have all sorts of concerns and questions about my simplistic summary above and you would be right to do so. After all theological statements should allways be questioned and wrestled with. (Perhaps, however, you would be best to start with your own!)
Finally, if you have read this in bemusement that anyone might find motivation and inspiration in dead religion, then… well I have no desire to convince you otherwise. Find yours elsewhere and let that sing in your soul instead.
Marking the journey towards the the last chance for the continued survival of whole species and perhaps even our civilisation: a conference of world leaders, meeting just over the river from where I live.
This image is of ‘Amal’, a three meter high puppet refugee who has been slowly making her way accross europe to her final destination of Manchester, along routes taken by other Syrian refugees. The full story is here.
I share this story not only because it is remarkable how an outsized animation has been able to humanise a human tragedy more than the humans themselves…
…but also because as we head towards COP26, it should be clear to us that the battle against global warming is inseperable from the issue of global social justice. The huge consumption gap between the haves and the have-nots is the problem here, The fear that keeps our borders high is the same fear that stops us from realising that it is we who have to change.
I want to live
I want to live in a world in which refugees are welcomed
As if coming home. As if the food they are given
Was cooked by their own mothers.
I want to live in a world in which people share what they have
With those who have nothing. Where fear of scarcity is foolish
Because we finally recognised abundance.
I want to live in a world in which love for neighbours
Made hedges and fences inconvenient. As if real estate
Is not real after all.
I want to live in a world in which guns are things for museums
Behind glass with suits of armour. Where tanks are
Used only to store liquid.
I want to live in a world in which nothing is expendable, as if landfills
were already full. As if bags of bolts and empty cans
Can be used again tomorrow.
I want to live in a world in which children are thrilled by birdsong
and gloriously appalled by black beetles. Where great adventure is made
Marking the journey towards the the last chance for the continued survival of whole species and perhaps even our civilisation: a conference of world leaders, meeting just over the river from where I live.
In case you missed it, COP21, otherwise known as ‘the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’, starts in Glasgow at the end of this month. In other words, world leaders have a last last chance to find ways to reverse collective self destruction. We stand on the brink, hopeful that someone can perform an act of great diplomacy. Unfortunately, the host of this gathering of the great and powerful is… Boris Johnson. We might need divine intervention.
Or we might need to remember that even BJ is not immune to the pressure of public opinion. Momentum for change is often only obvious in hindsight, but I genuinely think we are seeing evidence of movement.
It occurs to me too that if we are to see this change, it will not actually be about one conference, or one main effort, or one great action. Rather it will be about a thousand million actions, shaped by the emergence of a different way to think about our relationship with the world that we live on.
I have been inspired by an ark that has appeared on the hillside in my little corner of Argyll;
Let me start with this image, of recovered migrant boats gathered together in Gran Canaria (From The Guardian. Full story here.)
Can I suggest that you take a moment to ask yourself what emotions this picture evokes.
On the one hand the image churns in our fearful underbellies, into that dark part of us so easily exploited by proto fascists like Trump and Orban of Hungary. It is visual evidence of the hoards of ‘others’ massing at our borders wanting to take what is ours, or to come in such numbers as to overwhelm our culture and replace it with something alien and foreign. Something should be done, right?
But each one of these boats represents a story of human desperation. Undoubtably some (perhaps even many) of the passengers on these boats did not survive their attempts to reach Europe from Africa “…Caminando Fronteras, which has spent 14 years tracking and helping to co-ordinate the rescues of people who come to grief en route to Spain from Africa, estimates that 1,922 people died or disappeared while trying to reach the Canaries by sea between January and the end of June this year. (2021) By their calculations, the Atlantic route claimed 1,851 lives last year…” (Again, from The Guardian.) These are vast numbers, on just one of the routes used by people desperate to escape from all those usual evils that circumstance and growing global inequality has inflicted upon them. Men, women and children. Families setting out on a perilous journey with one aim- to be able to live lives of peace and prosperity, like we do. The human tragedy is hard to grasp, and then impossible to bear.
So, if you are like me, you feel yourself being sucked downwards in a vortex of powerlessness and despair. Our social media feeds highten this experience, constantly bringing us click-worthy extremes and promoting the most hateful and reprehensible voices, because there is nothing that captivates and invigorates our ego like our own outrage. Ultimately however, because there is nothing we can do about the state of the world, no wonder that we turn away and seek numbing distraction.
Thinking again about our individual responses to the picture above, it is clear that most of them must inevitably be passive responses. These might still be important, as clearly ‘public opinion’ is still shaping international responses to the so called ‘migrant crisis’, but on the whole, most of us have no direct influence on the complex circumstances that force people out on the open sea in small boats, beyond charitable giving or signing petitions. Where then do we look for hope? Surely these are not our only possible responses? Surely our hopes for the world used to amount to more than this?
I am working on a new book at the moment, which will be a collection of poetry, with art work from the outrageously talented Si Smith, which has the working title ‘After the apocalypse’. The project began about 5 years ago, in different times before we ever thought of face masks and social distancing. Back then, it seemed like the world was being dragged down a different sinkhole by Trump and his ilk. It felt important to resist in any way we could and for me this meant writing a lot of poetry. For Si, it meant producing and curating art. As the Trump/Johnson years have unfolded, it has been hard to hang on to the spirit of resistance. The set backs and defeats have mounted. Protest poetry began to seem like an indulgence, or an affliction of yet more misery on people who had seen enough of that already.
Then came the pandemic. The great disruptor. The great leveller (or so we thought). The killer and seperator. The window through which we look at things differently. The point at which the old normal is no more.
The project then took another shape, in which it was necessary not just to look backwards, but also to look forwards. But how is this possible, without hope? To conceive of a new world we have to hold an image of it in our minds. To work for good means that we have to have some idea of what goodness looks like. This is a huge challenge because most of our aspirations have been individually curated for us by our consumer culture. Instead of protest poems I began to write things like this;
Joy is not a bauble
Not a bubble, too soon burst
Never manufactured cost effectively
It is not bought or sold
It is not gold
Joy is not a jacket
You pick from a handy peg, it is
Never something worn externally
It is always a surprise
Joy requires no skill
Its practice is not taught
It is not being ‘happy’ or content
It is just being open, to the
Beautiful and broken
Joy is an ambush
Hidden in plain sight
Wrapped up in the most unlikely things
It often comes with grief, not even
Joy is a squirrel
Transcending a tree
It is music played directly on the spine
You do not need to look, because
It stabs you the gut
I read recently about this thing called active hope. This has nothing to do with blind optimism or pie-in-the-sky positivity, rather it refers to a process by which we might reset our lives towards meaning and that elusive sacred thing sometimes known as goodness, or grace, or dare I say it, holiness. Yes, I think it is time to reclaim the word from the religious bigots and apply it instead to something less dualistic and a lot more ordinary.
Active hope is a concept put forward by Chris Johnstone and Jo Macy, as a way to help those of us who want to make a difference to reconnect with… hope. Perhaps we should start with a story;
Shambhala. Does it remind you of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke so much about?
Writing in this months Permaculture magazine, Chris Johnstone describes active hope as a three step process, something like this;
Start from where you are, with an honest appraisal of how you think and feel about your immediate world. Perhaps it might be time to re-callibrate your hopes and aims, or to let go of things that need to be let go. He describes some of thee as like ‘carbon-heavy hopes’ that might be no longer fit for a world plagued by climate change.
The next step is about choices. He suggests that from wherever we are, even if it currently feels like a difficult and hard place, there are always a lot of different ways that things can develop, a lot of different versions of how the story can go. This step then is to choose the one you hope for. As long as we are able to make these choices, then we open up the possibiity of allowing hoped-for futures to act through us.
The third step is to take actions that might make those hoped for futures more likely.
Johnstone suggest too that when we face worries about the world we are living in, we contrast the usefulness of these two questions- ‘Are we hopeful?’, and ‘What are you hoping for?’. The first might be self defeating. The second one is anything but.
There is another important thing here, which was also part of the story of the Shambhala warriors, and that is the idea that small actions, taken by many, then amplified by the connectivity between all things, have a power beyond our immediate understanding. This takes some imagination in a culture that has glorified individualism.
This is where I am today, looking for active hope.
To be fair, the old Clyde is cleaner than it was, at least to the eye. All the old heavy industry that used to clog the shores of the river all the way up to Glasgow and beyond has mostly long gone, so it would be strange if it were not. But the clearer waters hide something else.
There have been reasons to be optimistic. Some iconic species like otter, seal and porpoise can been seen out in the estuary. We have even been visited by killer whales, and small numbers of wild Salmon have been finding their way up river for over a decade now.
But all that contaminated land continues to leach toxins in the the river. That is just the old stuff, not all the plastics that have found their way in there in the last decades. Then there are the things happening up the river in the watershed- mostly phosphates from farming.
At present, there is consierable focus on a large fine handed out to Southern Water for releasing raw sewage into the rivers (because it is cheaper to pay the fines than invest in new treatment facilities) but it should not come as a surprise that the Clyde has had similar incidents.
The obvious thing about the estuary though is how empty it is compared to what SHOULD be there. It is a bit like looking at our contour-planted hilsides, devoid as they are of almost all the flora and fauna that used to form the great rain forests, and getting excited by the presence of an eagle. The fish are not there. The reefs and kelp beds are shrinking, the sea bed has and is being scoured by trawlers dredging for the only commercial crop left, prawns and scallops. There is a summary of much of this here.
The thing is, we can do something about this. The toxiicity up river is frankly more of a risk to us (apart from the phosphates and other agricultural polutions in the upper river). There is however great evidence that marine protection areas, partiularly ones that can be policed as easily as the Clyde estuary could be, work.
Let us not be complacent. The firth of Clyde is lovely, but it is not healthy. It needs our help.
Dirty old river
Dirty old river all rusty and brown Coughs out a ship from the dirty old town Scavenging birds patrol overhead Searching for things only recently dead
Last resort trawler hauls close up to shore Scrapes up the last scallop and the very last prawn A flatiron-shaped tug smooths out towards sea Like the impossible flight of the last bumble bee
The dirty old river that once was pretty Collects like a sewer from the arse of this city Where once swam the salmon, the perch and brown trout There are only jobbies bobbing about
Firstly I have to declare an interest- I joined the Labour party again after decades because of Jeremy Corbyn. I thought his style of politics was both necessary and hopeful after years of austerity and the erosion of compassion and evidence-based (rather than ideology based) welfare provision.
Many friends of mine in Scotland went a different way and changed their alegiance to the SNP, beleiving it was only possible to escape the inertia exerted by conservative middle England by breaking free altogether. Whilst I recognise the strengths of this argument I am not yet willing to give up on internationalism nor on the northern Britishness that was my place of origin. I also feel deeply uncomfortable with nationalism of all kinds; history tells us it very rarely ends well.
Next I also have to acknowledge privilege. I am a white middle aged male- the tribe that are usually part of the problem. Making any ‘intervention’ into this area is fraught with the risk that I do not help, I merely add another diversive voice into the open wound that the debate around antisemitism has already left on the left wing of politics in this country.
Why do it then? Mostly, becuase this is how I process things- I research and write about them, striving for depth and honesty, accepting that my views are also shaped by my own prejudices.
The hope that Corbyn represented has been mostly squashed. For some, he was hung, drawn and quartered by the media using an area of life long strength – his battle against racism – which was relentlessly weaponised against him. Others say he presided over a system that failed to deal effectively and transparently with… you fill in the blanks.
On the most recent evidence the very least Corbyn stands accused of is inadequate leadership. But then, his ‘leadership’ skills were never really to the fore; he was never that kind of leader, instead healways more comfortable showing small scale empathy, siding with the little against the big. Perhaps the skills required to be the figurehead of a wide agenda in the face of multi-facetted opposition were never his.
But was/is he an anti-semite? More than this, does the left have an antsemitism problem?
How do we even begin to answer these questions? Last year, I found the arguments in this video compelling. I was struggling to reconcile my own experiences with the picture being painted by the media, and the points made by the late David Graeber rang true;
It is perhaps all too easy to indulge in whataboutism when faced with more blatant racism practiced on the right. Do you remember the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ scandal from 2014? It surrounded a leaked letter supposedly written by an education official describing a plot to take over local schools in the name of Islam. There is a fascinating Radio 4 programme about it all, here. Basically, the letter was a fake, but that did not stop the whole mechanism of the state and the Murdoch media raising a storm. Gove, then education secretary, appointed an expert in counter-terrorism to investigate, who concluded that there were indeed problems caused by radicalisation.
Meanwhile, a Birmingham council investigation, led by a headmaster, disagreed entirely, concluding that the real problem was to do with school governance (remember that Gove was trying to push through his ‘academy’ system, where parents run their own schools independent of councils.) You can guess which report was all over the news.
This kind of racism has no challenge in the media; neither does it even seem something to be ashamed of within the Conservative party. It is the amost-acceptable kind of racism.
But two wrongs do not make a right. I needed to understand, as much as possible, exactly what had been going on with my own party.
If you are at all interested, I suggest you do the same. But here’s the thing; don’t expect a smoking gun that will clear everything up, pointing firmly to the guilty party. The reality is much more complex and much more human. Not that you would think that if you only read the newspapers. The headlines have been conclusive. Corbyn had been ‘unmasked’.
The report indeed found the party was guilty of ‘3 unlawful acts’; political interferance in the complaints process, inadequate training and examples of direct harrassment (key figures who used antisemitic tropes and stereotypes). The devil is in the detail here though and I really do suggest you read the report in full. I was left in no doubt that there was antisemitism within the party, arising from ignorance, clumsiness, anti-Israel feelings and even the old nonesense about secret Jewish cabals that run world affairs from the shadows, but I was also left with the feeling that this would be true of ANY political party, or ANY institution, if you asked the same questions of it after so much blood letting on the issue. The party reflects the society in which it emerged from, although perhaps it feelishly felt itself to be better than it really was. After, we are the GOOD guys, right?
To those who have been hurt directly by all of this, I feel deep sympathy, but these remain murky waters. It has become even more difficult to hold our ‘allies’ in Israel to account for their blatant human rights abuses towards Palestinians and their disregard of international law. The left has done what it always seems to do- fractured into warring factions, divided against itself.
One of the reasons that my Scottish friends often give for deserting Labour and opting for the SNP’s vision of a left-leaning independent Scotand is the fact that Scotland returned overwhelming Labour victories for a generation but this got the left no-where. After all, the political system in the UK seems rigged towards Conservative success. A case in point might be the last election, in which left of centre parties polled a much higher total vote than that achieved by the Tories, who were nevetheless rewarded by an overwhelming majority by our first-past-the-post election process. Proportional representation therefore is most definitely not on the agenda. Instead, we have moves to introduce voter ID measures right out of the American Jim Crow playbook which will almost certainly disenfranchise many traditional left wing voters amongst poor communities. Power is bought and sold at expensive dinners where access to the ears of ministers is literally for sale to those who can afford it. Let us not ever kind ourselves that the money is being spent is for altruistic purposes. It is a shame on our country that there is no sign of a political movement to clean up this cess pool, and replace it with a system that limits/polices political funding and lobbying structures and also regulates so called ‘think tanks’ by making their funding transparent so we know who is paying for their dodgy messages.
The questoin that we constantly seem to ask is this one; can the left ever win a majority in this system, or do we only win by a Blairite move to the safe centre? (Safe that is for the vested interests suggested above whose investment has paid back so handsomely.) Perhaps my Scottish friends have it right and we have to give up on old Albion and build our tartan nirvana north of our new Hadrian’s wall. The problem I have is that although there is much of old Albion I would be very glad to leave behind, there is much that still lies close to my heart; the history of resistance, from the Diggers, to the Chartists, to the Tolpuddle martyrs and the Kinder Scout protestors.
Perhap this is just pointless nostalgia, but I would argue that it is more than that. It is about an ideology, a moment, a set of liberating and inspiring ideas about how the word is, and how it could be, despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite the failures. It has already achieved so much, mostly things that are taken for granted; pensions, benefits systems, the (George-medal-winning for gawds sake) NHS, environmental regluations, free education, safer working practices and so on… all of wihch are under attack both north and south of the aforementioned wall. I am longing not for a flag, but for a quiet revoution of new ideas.
The last labour manifesto had much in it to get excited about. New economic thinking, a green new deal, investment in localism and the promise of genuine change. The trouble was that despite the good things it continued, it lacked a story, an overarching narrative. I hate to say it, but it also lacked a communicator who could inspire more than just a cult following.
Then we come to Starmer. The leader whose main quality was that he looks like a softer more caring Tory. He appears to have a strategy of just biding his time, appealing to the common sense of the common man, waiting for the seemingly inevitable Johnson self-destruction. But I for one am becoming increasingly impatient with him. I have no idea what he thinks. I can see, as if from space, his attempts to not upset the tabloids, even if this means refusing to champion causes that desperately need a champion, but I can not decide what he is for, what he wants to achieve, what passions motivate him. He has no story for me to believe in.
Complaints about Labour’s lack of “narrative” are now so familiar as to be aching cliches. Clearly, if the party has no language in its collective lungs, that is only symptomatic of deeper problems that Starmer has so far ignored. The list is long: the fact that Labour can no longer monopolise the politics of the left; the dwindling of the party’s old power bases in industry and the trade unions; its lack of a meaningful presence in plenty of its supposed heartlands, and the resulting sense of the party leadership in Westminster being a distant clique…
…Over the weekend, the Labour leader announced a new policy on the public sector “buying British”, and a public relations drive on crime. Depending on your point of view, those things will either represent necessary action on some of Labour’s weaknesses, or a grimly familiar resort to faux patriotism and “toughness”. But neither suggest any kind of confident story about what Britain has recently experienced, nor a vision of where it should be heading; a cynical public will either not notice, or see such manoeuvring as proof that the people who run the party are still very anxious.
Richer political seams should not be hard to come by. Particularly in England, where the Covid crisis has highlighted two key things: the panicked incompetence of the people at the top, and the kind of injustices that a decade of Tory-led governments has made immeasurably worse. We now know, for example, that the death rate from Covid in some areas of England has been 25% higher than the national average, and that the impossibility of home working for millions of people has increased their exposure to the virus, with awful consequences. Thanks to Marcus Rashford, the everyday prevalence of hunger has permeated the collective consciousness; the fact that 6 million people now have experience of universal credit has further exposed the cruelties of the benefits system….
Even in the short term, you can not fight populists like Johnson (or Trump) by the application of liberal norms and appeals to decency and good manners- they lied and cheated their way past all that years ago and even their supporters know it, they just do not care. The end result is that it is that much harder to get the general public involved in political discourse after social media driven polarisation has devalued any political speach to ‘just another lying useless politician’. We know that Johnson is a charlatan, but he is at least colourful. He has floppy hair and says outrageous things. Who cares that Starmer forensically destroys him at parlimentary questions every week? The only thing that will rid us of Boris is Boris himself, or his friend waiting in the wings for their own crack at the top job.
But short termism will not hack it in our current situation, with widening inequality, climate change and all. The left understands the problem all too well; here is Monbiot in case you need to hear it again;
What has been lacking almost entirely at the heart of the politics of the left is a clear alternative to the growthism that Monbiot spells out so well. Even when we see it for what it is, it is almost impossible to challenge the dominance of the ideas that allow it to coninue because we can not concieve of what an alternative might look like. (Yes we need a communicator who can spell out this vision, but we must also fear that some communicator because he or she can easily become a 1930’s style dictator in these fluid times. One possible defense against this is a strong movement, mitigated through a network of local politics.)
But the clues are there. Some of them have been talked about for so long that they have almost become cliches. The problem we have now is how we unite to construct that story together, despite all the division, in order for someone to tell it in a way that people can once more believe. This means that whether they like it or not, the SNP, who have perhaps thrived on the Sottish distaste for all things Tory, need a revitalised labour party, because otherwise, post independence, what story will they tell? The same void that afflict the left will affect them, and the danger is that the void will be filled with those who wish only to serve themselves.