Individualism, inequality and your mental health…

Reversing poverty requires a more progressive tax system and a shift in the political mindset

It is an old theme this, the relationship between societal inequality and the mental well-being of those who live there.

A sample of some of these issues can be found on these links;

I was reminded of some of this over the past week in relation to two different issues. The first came to us in the form of the so-called Panama Papers, which have shown us something of how the super rich have organised the world to ensure that they remain super rich, and avoid paying taxes for services provided to those who are not.

Perhaps some real change may yet come from the Panama Papers- certainly the debate it is stimulating is refreshing in that for once, the targets for media indignation are not those whom we scapegoat at the bottom of the pile.

However, my fear is that it has already become one of those media-driven righteous crusades in which we let a little blood for public consumption, but change very little. The real sobering truth is that inequality is not just to do with Billionaires who stash their booty in tax havens; rather it is tall about US. OUR lifestyles, OUR consumer choices. It has more to do with the fear that stalks us that we might lose what we have, particularly the stuff that our peers are continuing to enjoy.

Meanwhile inequality in the UK is growing. Some of this is generational, in that those of us who bought the Thatcher idea of home ownership (and unwittingly also bought the slavery to the market forces that came with it) now are so fixated on the security and value of this property that our kids can not even begin to afford to buy their own version of the same.

Some of it is regional, in that the wealth of greater London is like a black hole that sucks people in and never quite spits them out.

Its greatest effects can be seen internationally however, in the way that our wealth is not just in contrast to that of poverty elsewhere, but entirely dependent on this.

trickle down economics

But back to the point of this piece. The other thing that brought home to be the realities of inequality this week was some reading I was doing in relation to ‘Formulation’- a psychological term describing the process by which we come to an understanding of the nature, cause, story and meaning of mental distress. Part of this meant reading this guide, and in particular this section;

There is a careful balance to be struck between acknowledging the very real limitations and pressures that people face, while not diminishing their sense of hope or agency… The community/social inequalities/human rights perspective is often poorly integrated into practice. Recent research underlines the importance of this dimension.

Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have presented compelling evidence that a society’s level of social inequality is causally related to its rates of mental illness: ‘If Britain became as equal as the four most equal societies (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), mental illness might be more than halved’ (p.261). Particularly relevant to formulation is their suggestion that inequality has its most damaging impact at least partially through its personal meaning to the individual, in terms of feeling devalued, shamed, trapped and excluded. This underlines the importance of being aware of the wider contexts of formulations and clinical work. In the words of a World Health Organisation report on mental health: ‘…levels of mental distress among communities need to be understood less in terms of individual pathology and more as a response to relative deprivation and social injustice’ (WHO, 2009, p.111).

That sentence concerning how inequality results in people being ‘devalued, shamed, trapped and excluded’ should not be read as something just aimed at the super poor, but rather something that applies equally to us all.

Although perhaps some are more equal than others.

Belated Easter thoughts on atonement…

IMGP8918.JPG

I hope you all had a lovely Easter…

For us, this Easter has been one of great contrasts. We had a trip down to Nottinghamshire to attend the wedding of my lovely niece to a young bloke that I have become increasingly fond of. It was a lovely day; the ceremony was led by another friend at the church I attended as a child.

The contrast was that while all this was going on, my wife has been trying to come to terms with the death of her father, who passed away on Wednesday.

All of this obscured the feast of Easter. As someone who continues to make my spiritual journey primarily through the words and teaching of Jesus, I wanted to take some time out to reflect again on what this season might mean, in the close presence of both joy and deep loss. My rather obvious initial thought was that Easter contains both the reality of death and the hope that love can transcend even this.

As always at Easter however, I also find myself thinking about this word ‘atonement’. Those of you who are not of a religious bent may have heard of the word, but perhaps will not know that it has long been a theological football. For much of the modern era, within protestant circles at least, a very narrow, legalistic view predominated; Jesus died on a cross in order to pay the price of our sin. God the father required a sacrifice, in the form of the punishment of his son, in order to atone for those who are prepared to believe. I have made no secret of my own frustration at the limitations of this version, known as ‘substitutionary atonement’.

Back in February, Michaela forwarded me a Richard Rohr meditation that she had signed up to receive daily. He says it a lot better than I could, so here it is.

IMGP8920.JPG

Franciscans never believed that “blood atonement” was required for God to love us. Our teacher, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), said Christ was Plan A from the very beginning (Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:3-14). Christ wasn’t a mere Plan B after the first humans sinned, which is the way most people seem to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Great Mystery of Incarnation could not be a mere mop-up exercise, a problem solving technique, or dependent on human beings messing up.

Scotus taught that the Enfleshment of God had to proceed from God’s perfect love and God’s perfect and absolute freedom (John 1:1-18), rather than from any mistake of ours. Did God intend no meaning or purpose for creation during the first 14.8 billion years? Was it all just empty, waiting for sinful humans to set the only real drama into motion? Did the sun, moon, and galaxies have no divine significance? The fish, the birds, the animals were just waiting for humans to appear? Was there no Divine Blueprint (“Logos”) from the beginning? Surely this is the extreme hubris and anthropomorphism of the human species!

The substitutionary atonement “theory” (and that’s all it is) seems to imply that the Eternal Christ’s epiphany in Jesus is a mere afterthought when the first plan did not work out. I know there are many temple metaphors of atonement, satisfaction, ransom, “paying the price,” and “opening the gates”; but do know they are just that–metaphors of transformation and transitioning. Too many Christians understood these in a transactional way instead of a transformational way.

How and why would God need a “blood sacrifice” before God could love what God had created? Is God that needy, unfree, unloving, rule-bound, and unable to forgive? Once you say it, you see it creates a nonsensical theological notion that is very hard to defend. Many rightly or wrongly wondered, “What will God ask of me if God demands violent blood sacrifice from his only Son?” Particularly if they had a rageaholic or abusive parent, they were already programmed to believe in punishment as the shape of the universe. A violent theory of redemption legitimated punitive and violent problem solving all the way down–from papacy to parenting. There eventually emerged a disconnect between the founding story of necessary punishment and Jesus’ message. If God uses and needs violence to attain God’s purposes, maybe Jesus did not really mean what he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and violent means are really good and necessary. Thus our history.

In Franciscan parlance, Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This grounds Christianity in pure love and perfect freedom from the very beginning. It creates a very coherent and utterly positive spirituality, which draws people toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing, and even universal “at-one-ment,” instead of mere sacrificial atonement. Nothing changed on Calvary, but everything was revealed as God’s suffering love–so that we could change! (Please read that again.)

Jesus was precisely the “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27) sacrifice given to reveal the lie and absurdity of the very notion and necessity of “sacrificial” religion itself. Heroic sacrifices to earn God’s love are over! That’s much of the point of Hebrews 10 if you are willing to read it with new eyes. But we perpetuated such regressive and sacrificial patterns by making God the Father into the Chief Sacrificer, and Jesus into the necessary victim. Is that the only reason to love Jesus?

This perspective allowed us to ignore Jesus’ lifestyle and preaching, because all we really needed Jesus for was the last three days or three hours of his life. This is no exaggeration. The irony is that Jesus undoes, undercuts, and defeats the sacrificial game. Stop counting, measuring, deserving, judging, and punishing, which many Christians are very well trained in–because they believe that was the way God operated too. This is no small thing. It makes the abundant world of grace largely inaccessible–which is, of course, the whole point.
It is and has always been about love from the very beginning.

 

 

 

Novel, excerpt 3…

2AE025B200000578-3177981-This_Topshop_dummy_that_started_the_furore_When_we_measured_a_si-a-28_1438126580996

By any measurement, Helen was a beautiful woman.

 

She had the sort of frame that never crumpled clothes- all willowy and slender like the girl she had never quite stopped being, despite the beckoning of middle age. Her light brown hair was shoulder length and perfectly behaved, swaying around an oval, symmetrical face. Her eyes were a startling shade of green and her skin smooth-brown and lightly freckled like a perfect beach pebble.

 

Hers was an effortless beauty, undefeatable by fashion mistakes or bad hair days. It was built around a kind of elfin simplicity that could render her enticingly vulnerable in jeans and old sweaters yet was also stunningly sophisticated in a silk dress. She even woke unruffled like some character from a toothpaste commercial,

 

Men stared, following the arc of her limbs in the corner of their eyes, thrilling to the inching up of the hem of her skirt or the brushing back of wind-wisped hair behind a perfectly formed ear- and Helen hated it. She loathed the way they flattered her and competed for her attention. She hated it too when despite her best efforts they turned to jelly as if she was some kind of Kryptonite to their not-so-Super man.

 

Women, however, tended watch in envy- in the same way that they might stare at glossy magazine pictures of models wearing clothes they could never afford. Some wanted to be near her, as if to bask in her reflected beauty, whilst all the time probing for cracks in the lovely façade through which they could find her gloriously wanting.

 

Helen had discovered early in life that hers was a kind of beauty that did not seem to draw people in- rather it had an exclusive quality like an invisible force-field. People would stare at her, then step back deferentially. This had become the unconscious defining characteristic of Helen’s relating and communing with others; she lived at the centre of a curated space, like a roped-off podium in an art gallery, a rare and expensive exhibit that should be appreciated only from hushed distance. Helen herself was insightful enough to be aware of the phenomenon, but not to understand the cause of it. In most social situations she found it impossible to fully close the gap.

 

As a surprising late and only child, she had never needed to compete for attention, it was given to her as if by divine right. Neither did she have to work hard to please her care givers as they seemed satisfied just to polish her exterior, to dress her, display her and reverence her.

 

This might suggest the ideal circumstance for creation of a self-centred spoiled child, but Helen had never really become selfish. She loved her doting parents and wanted to make them happy so she attended the ballet classes and competed in the gymkhanas. She learned to play piano competently and to provide entertainment at her parents’ dinner parties. It had been easy and undemanding to fulfil her mother’s mostly benign longings for genteel accomplishment and ornament her father’s advancing years with soft, if tedious, Sunday afternoons of companionship.

 

Despite growing up in this comfortable suburban idyll, Helen was always aware that something was missing, although she was never quite sure what it was. She felt it like a kind of emptiness – like finest food never tasted, or some vital person she had yet to meet. Like the violet edge of a rainbow it fringed everything she did. It was most noticeable in her unconscious yearning for more, despite guilty conviction that she already had far too much.

 

Over time she learnt to suppress this longing; to dismiss it as middle class cliché and the faux-ennui of privilege, but it was rather like the ache of sensitive teeth that could be triggered anew by small changes in the weather. It could often surprise her.

 

Helen knew that being the object of adoration also brought also great responsibility. She was the source of some kind of divine blessing on this kind and generous couple into whose life she had been inserted unexpectedly. She learnt her part well, but still the distance was there – that roped-off and poorly understood space across which she watched the others watching her.

Palm Sunday, the first day of Spring…

blossom

Sun lights upon shy green things

And we cheer

For all these things are new again

 

But darkness is not banished

There it remains, cloaked up in the crowd

Waiting to strike down hope

 

Like the late frost

Lay down your coats

For the world is warming

 

Wave branches cut from

Contour planted conifers

Hashtag hosanna to all those

 

Holy celebrities

Let blossom bloom before it falls

For they crucify tomorrow.

The middle of Lent…

IMG_20160219_155940429

We are still in the middle of season of Lent. For those of us who still seek to travel within the ancient and generous Christian traditions, Lent is all about appreciation of journey, particularly through wilderness, through temptation and through encounter with our own weaknesses.

In the depths of this encounter, Easter is so far away as to be almost irrelevant. There are no miracles here, just grit in the shoe and hard miles to travel.

This year, I decided to do without sugar- as far as this is possible in a culture that even puts sugar in baked beans. In practice it has meant avoiding anything sweet, any fizzy drinks or chocolate. It has mostly not been a difficult thing to do and has clear health benefits. It is a small thing to signify sacrifice.

But the middle of the Lenten wilderness has little to do with food choices- this I feel keenly at present. I do not long for oasis, I long to live without the need of oasis. To live not longing for weekends and expensive holidays, but rather to simply walk in the way that I am made to be. To stop searching the horizon for something to aim at, to look forward to. To stop sugar coating life and just to live for something wholesome and true.

Perhaps you understand this- your walk is also hard, maybe an awful lot harder than mine.

In the middle of our Life-Lent, I offer you a poem/prayer I wrote a few years ago. I dared to imagine God speaking to me, sharing a moment with one of his more troubled and wayward sons.

 

Holy Spirit mojo

 

Put down those things you carry

Sit with me a while

Stop making things so complicated

It is much simpler than that

 

Start from where you are

Not where you would like to be

Not where others say you should be

There may come a time when

I will warm your heart towards new things

But right now

I just want to warm your heart

 

All around you is beauty

See it

All around you are people I love

And I rejoice as you learn to love them too

Look for softness in your heart

There I am

Look for tenderness

And it will be my Spirit

Calling you to community

 

It is not for you to cut a way into the undergrowth

Or make a road into the rocky places

Rather let us just walk

And see were this path will lead us

You and I

 

For my yolk rests easy

If you will wear it

 

And my burdens lie soft on the shoulders

If you will lift them

 

Off-grid spoon whittler…

I was watching this advert the other day…

 

It made me think…

An off-grid spoon whittler.

Sounds good to me. Why would I want to be on grid when I can sit in a wood whittling spoons?

I was pretty sure that the slightly maniacal look rocked by the woman in the clip above was far less likely whilst carving spoons than it might be sitting in front of a bloody screen.

So I sliced a branch from the yew tree in our garden and set to with the knife Emily bought me for Christmas, an axe and a hook knife I bought from e bay.

Several blisters later, I made this.

I am proud of my spoon, so I went on-grid to display it to the world. Now back to the woods…

IMGP8914IMGP8915