Time to look to the left…


In the wake of the Referendum debate up here, we are all wondering if the remarkable upsurge of political engagement can actually lead to real change, and what new/old political or social movements might be the vehicle that will allow this change to take place.

My feeling is that despite all the noise and smoke, real change is not inevitable.  This is partly because maintaining momentum is a challenge, (particularly in the wake of the NO vote) and perhaps even more because there is no real clarity over WHAT people want to change. There has been a clear expression of dissatisfaction- both with the current socio-political status quo, and with Westminster (which was usually seen to be English) in particular, but the Yes campaign up here seemed to me a combing together of very great complexity under the deceptively simple duality of yes/no. People were able to invest hopes and dreams along with a way to vent their spleen, but consensus over the sort of society/economy/community that should replace the one we are part of now? This is a wholly different issue.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was not convinced by the nationalist argument, but that I am desperate for change. The process of engaging with the referendum has therefore been a painful one for me- one that I feel to have driven wedges between myself and things I hold dear- as well as people I hold dear. Aside from the personal aspects of this however, to a certain extent, what has happened is what always seems to happens in the UK- it has become another means by which the political left splits itself apart.

The challenge then for radicals on both sides of the referendum campaign is to find a way to come together again. If the real issue was not nationalism, but a desire to be in charge of shaping things towards our own destiny, then what happens now that these things need to be filtered again through the current political machinery? For the NO voters like me, now that we have rejected one possible change process, what are we going to put in its place?

I have spent hours and hours since the referendum reading stuff about alternatives, and how policy might be different. If you are interested, here are a few links;

The New Economics Foundation. A collection of ideas on how to achieve greater environmental, social and economic justice.

Countless articles in Newspapers (mostly The Guardian, which is the only one to give voice to persistent thoughtful radicals.) Including this one

The big idea of the three main parties is the same: not capitalism, or neo-liberalism, or social democracy – but growthism. This term was coined by the author Umair Haque to describe the pursuit, above all other things, of economic growth. Never mind who it benefits, who gets left behind or what it destroys; never mind if its practices are unfair or unsustainable: if the numbers go up, everyone is happy, and if they’re not happy, give them a tax break.

Common Weal. “…a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First.”  A collection of reports on a range of political and economic solutions.

The Green Party. The only UK political party that has a comprehensive set of radical policies on everything from social welfare and defence- not just the environment! I confess that as a lifelong (albeit latterly reluctant) Labour supporter, I am on the cusp of making the leap towards the Greens. I am gathering a clarity over the changes I long for and the Greens seem to have most of these things as policy objectives. A change from Growthism to sustainability, and emphasis on social justice and progressive fair taxation, and a defence policy that is as radical as almost anything I have ever seen- a real movement away from the military industrial machine.

I had a long discussion with a friend recently- someone still heartbroken and raw from the referendum. One of the things we talked about was whether change had to be local or more global. My feeling is that it has to be both. Activism has to be rooted in real community, local connection, but it needs to be connected to something bigger- to leadership, creativity and passion that has a wider expression. This is what the Left has failed to achieve for some time- possibly because Labour (ostensibly a Leftist party, but actually as rooted in the accommodation of growthism as any party) was seen as offering all that the Left could offer. However, also this might have something to do with it too;

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”
― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

We need to forge local connections, but we also need to look beyond them. Part of this might well require healing some of those divisions with our political allies. When we look to the left, let us see people of hope, not people of division.

You were made to choose…

Psychological determinism is something I feel the need to resist.

You might have guessed that from posts like this one, in which I react to the seeping snake oil that is personality testing. One of the reasons that I react against all this kind of stuff is the fact that it would tell us that we can not change- that our die was cast in the DNA we grew from and therefore we should just conform to our stereotype.

I do not concur because I do not think the science can support such narrow determinism. Also I stand as a person in much need of change. I am not the best that I can be. I am not the finished article. At age 47 the broken bits of me still need mending and the sinful bits of me need forgiving more than ever. I no longer have the excuse of immaturity.

This short TED talk says some interesting and hopeful things about the continuing possibilities of change;

Does the internet make everything superficial- even revolution?


I have been thinking a lot about revolution- not the violent bloody guillotine kind, more the Jesus kind- the explosion of light in the middle of our thinking that means that living the old way seem ridiculous.

I worry that it is too late for me and for my generation. We lost our passion, our ideology, our religion. It was already being poisoned by toxic consumption when the wars in the Gulf killed it dead. What replaces this for most of us is that most pernicious anti-doctrine called cynicism. Those of us in whom some old light survives are tired and so easily distracted by trivia, sport, shiny product.

The gap between hope and aspiration is a dreadful one. We hoped for a world that was not being eaten away piece by piece by the rich North at the expense of the poor South. We hoped for societies who are learning to find harmony, community, justice, compassion. We hoped to break free from the cycles of materialism that corrupt and commodotise the lives of rich and poor (although particularly the rich.) We hoped for so much more than plastic life with built in obsolescence.

Instead we accommodate. We compromise our compromises. We watch TV. Our lives slip by with advert breaks. In an age of total communication I often find myself with three screens flicking three different sets of information at me at once. I outsourced my humanity into cyberspace; I live only on screen now.

Most of us know this to be true, and so we find ourselves on an instinctive search for something with meaning; mountaintop experiences, adrenaline rushes, screaming rock concerts. But because of the internet, because we are tired, distracted and outsourced, most of the time we look for meaning via our screens. Like the one you are reading this through right now.

And there is meaning/truth/beauty out there. Facebook is full of it- all those video clips, quotations, posters that get posted and re-posted millions of times. Clips like this one;

Don’t get me wrong- this is lovely. It might even contribute to making shifts in people minds towards grace. But at the same time do we really think that these kinds of formats can bridge the gap between hope and aspiration that I mentioned above?

You may also point me towards the way that savvy campaigning organisations have used social media platforms to get their messages across- flashmobs, direct protesting, bombarding of websites, on line petitions etc.

But if we are honest, as soon as we hit ‘share’ on most of these posts, we kind of think that our job is done right? As soon as I have written something full of faux-pathos on this blog I feel like I have liberated a captive or two, fed some hungry child or restored their sight.

But nothing has changed. Not really.

There was a great interview with Uruguayan President José Mujica in The Guardian today. He is an old revolutionary Marxist, friend of Che Guevara, who is now the leader of perhaps the most progressive country in South America. This is from the article;

“I’m just sick of the way things are. We’re in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market,” he said. “Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us.”

The president lives within his means and promotes the use of renewable energy and recycling in his government’s policies. At the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development last year, he railed against the “blind obsession” to achieve growth through greater consumption. But, with Uruguay’s economy ticking along at a growth rate of more than 3%, Mujica – somewhat grudgingly, it seems – accepts he must deliver material expansion. “I’m president. I’m fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more,” he said. “I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That’s an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation.”

Asked for a solution to this contradiction, the president admits he doesn’t have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. “We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction,” he said. “But we think as people and countries, not as a species.”

Mujica and his wife chat fondly about meetings with Che Guevara, and the president guesses he is probably the last leader in power to have met Mao Zedong, but he has mixed feelings about the recent revolts and protests in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. “The world will always need revolution. That doesn’t mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary,” he said.

But he is cynical about demonstrations organised by social networks that quickly dissolve before they have a capacity to build anything lasting. “The protesters will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern diseases. I hope that I am wrong about that.”

The revolution does not need tanks to break down it’s barricades- those who want it to fail only need to sit back and watch it become tired, distracted, outsourced.

I hope I am wrong too. I suppose that the very presence of leaders like Mujica gives us hope, even if he is 78.

I hope that there are still people who have the courage to act as well as to observe quirky three minute clips on Youtube.

Rapture rescue…

Interesting stuff.

Naomi Klein contrasts different responses to global crisis, and specifically uses this term- ‘Rapture rescue’-  a kind of global economic secular event through which some get saved, and others get left behind.

We see this perhaps in the response to terrorism- there is in the West a longing for some kind of second coming to sweep aside the evil and leave us safe in our holy escape pods. Some used to believe that war would achieve this.

Or perhaps capitalism itself could be seen in this way- there are those who believe– who live well and play to the rules of the holy market, and the unfaithful. Some of these can be rescued- but only by becoming like us.

Then there is climate change, which Klein talks about a lot here. Those who still deny the science seem bound up in a defensive wall of self interest. The crisis is external doubt, and the possibility of a threat to a way of life.

The ‘Rapture’ image hit me hard, as it makes a lot of sense- religion is both the engine of our underlying assumptions about the world, and also the means through which we justify and apply a kind of sacred redemption to our actions and lifestyles.

This being true, how might our faith still be an engine, but rather an engine for grace– for us, our neighbours and our environment? How might this  lead us to work for change NOW, not to wall ourselves away from the unfaithful, the undeserving, the already-lost?

Well I liked the simplicity of what Klein said, here-

“If we want the transformation, we can’t wait for it to happen in some massive jolt, we have to plan for it and model it…”

“Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change, and when that change occurs this depends on the ideas that are lying around. That is our function, to keep ideas alive until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

We Christians are carriers of perhaps the best ideas- contained within the life of Jesus. Our function is to keep these stories alive, and to try to live them out in our context.

Well our context is changing…

On line networking- in case you thought not much had changed…

I have blogged before about my own mixed relationship to internet, and my feeling that on-line social networking is useful, but limited, as a method of human interaction. ( Here and here for example)

Technology continues to develop though, and who knows what is to come that may yet be more nuanced and more human?

However, I remain convinced that our call as Christians is to display beautiful community– a kind that is open, accepting and dynamic. It requires vulnerability, loyalty, commitment and a willingness to forgive, and to learn how to love, despite our constant tendency to hurt and wound and defend.

It may be possible to experience some aspects of this through on-line networking. Indeed, I think I have experienced this in part- but only in part. Online stuff can easily become a male theological ego-bashing debate, or an opportunity to find ascendancy and significance- I wonder whether the celebrity bloggers have taken over the centre stage from the guitar playing worship leaders in our ‘heros of the emerging church’ hall of fame?

But the internet, and the pace of change it is bringing to our WHOLE LIFE- this is undeniable. In case you need any further convincing, here is a clip that Christine Sine posted on her  blog here-

Looking for hope and learning to live it…

Following on from my rather negative piece, reflecting on my reaction to Rollins’ book, I have been doing some more thinking about the process of change…

Deconstructing the institution of Church (particularly evangelical church) has been perhaps the primary preoccupation of the debate that has been described as ’emerging church’. For me, this was absolutely necessary- and part of the inevitable process of change. However, it may be necessary, but it can never be sufficient for the formation of a movement- let along a movement of the living, recreating God…

What has been nagging at me (and many others) is this simple question- what next?

  • This is a theological question- the need to examine again what assumptions and core values drive (or sometimes OBSCURE) the mission of the church.
  • It is also and organisational question- what is church- what does it look like? How is it resourced/led/networked/held accountable?
  • It is a personal question– in terms of the call to be transformed by our encounter with Jesus, but it is also a collective question, in the sense that we (the church) are the collective agents of the New Kingdom. We ought then to be the best hope for our communities, our towns, our planet. How will we seek to become this?

McLaren describes institutions (see clip below) as ‘preservers of the advances made by previous generations.’ in seeking to CHALLENGE and deconstruct, we have to accept that we are also PART of this institution- to a lesser or greater degree. There is still so much to celebrate, so much to preserve. For many, the issue is not the need to destroy (although I confess that I have longed for a few well lit fires in my time!) but rather then need to find new EMPHASIS.

Just in case this sounds too tame, too conformist for you- I should make clear that my small ‘church’ community is right outside any formal institution of church- and could be (perhaps is) regarded as dangerous and heretical by some of my more reformed colleagues. However, when we reflect on what we are, and what we do- our preoccupations, our core values, our practices- they are not new.

So what will our (perhaps pivotal) generation pass on to our successors? What values will they need to either protect, or deconstruct and reform?

What is the mission of God for this our time- the personal one, the local one, and the global one? These are the voices I look for now- the Apostolic ones…

I think this was what was behind my disapointment with Rollins’ book. It was clever, well written, well developed, full of lovely little parables, but despite this, did not connect me with a hope for the future- what might be being built, not just broken down.

I watched the following clip this morning- not because McLaren is always right, but I genuinely think that this man has an Apostolic voice. Listen friends, and let hope rise to action!

Change 2

We people of faith seem to have an interesting relationship to change.

  • We celebrate a God who makes all things new.
  • In him, we become new creations- we are born again.
  • We believe in the continual transformative power of the Spirit in our lives.
  • But God is unchanging.
  • And we regard our understanding of TRUTH to be absolute, and therefore unchanging.

We also organise our faith into religious institutions- and institutions are usually extremely change resistant. There seems to be something about the experience of faith that is threatened by the prospect of change. It is almost as if our faith, so deeply felt and yet so fragile, is protected by a scaffolding of external certainty that can not easily cope with any suggestion that individual elements may need to be re-thought, or re-examined.

However, change is a difficult process for most of us as individuals too. I can clearly remember the times of transition in my own life, and none of them were easy. Some where forced- by those life transitions that we all face. Some were made as a result of choices- either positive ones, towards something new and exciting, and/or negative ones, away from things that I have rejected.

One of those pivot point in my own life came about as I began a scary and painful exploration of the tennets of my faith. There was a negative imperative within this- my experience of faith in may new Scottish context had been fraught with difficulties. A church on self destruct mode, an encounter with American fundementalism, and a conviction that something just was not working. There was also a longing for renewal, and a faint hope that new things were possible. But the more questions I seemed to be asking, the more may own scaffolding seemed to be falling away. At one point, I did not know if my faith could survive this.

But it more than survived- I found that it exploded into something wonderful and new.

There is an interesting discussion about change in the introduction to Brian McLaren’s book ‘A new kind of Christian’ . This book has been transformative to many who have encountered it- and caused huge controversy. McLaren is a prophet to some, a demon to many. I devoured his writing like a starving man at a feast.

McLaren described a process of change that begins with disatisfaction and pain. We feel oppressed and captured by our experience- unable to move on.

This becomes funnelled into a narrow space where we begin to look forward, but have no clear idea of what might be to come.

Then the shape of possibility allows us to come out of a funnel. This can be exciting and highly motivating. We might also be very rejecting of the past.

As the new thing takes shape, it opens out into normality, and perhaps the whole thing begins again.

The Church in the west is caught somewhere in this process. Looking for hope, but resisting the unknown. How we need the Holy Spirit. And how we need pioneers who are prepared to head off into the unknown!

Things change 1

Nothing stays the same.

Things all around us a changing. Some of this change is imperceptible, because we have become so inured to it. We are sold this kind of change every time we turn on the TV- newer, shinier things- improved and updated. Our economic system is entirely dependent on our continued addiction to the new, and the rejection of the old.

There seem to have been times through history when the general pace of change in the dominant societal forces make a step-change. Perhaps most of the rhetoric about these periods of history arise from the gifts given by hindsight, but nevertheless, every few hundred years or so, it seems the order of things as we know it comes under pressure. New ways of thinking and structuring ourselves mingle with new technology in a chicken-and-egg symbiosis, and many things that seem constant and reliable are tested by the new reality.

And so the age of castles and feudal allegiances became the age of printing presses, industrial production and scientific enlightenment. Empowerment of mass population leads to revolution and democratic endevour. And we see this new reality in the shape of towns, the growth of new organisations, and even the way we seek to understand and study God.

There was a great programme on BBC two a little while ago, presented by Steven Fry, and called Steven Fry and the machine that made us.

The programme was all about the first media entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of the first printing press at the very beginning of the 15th Century. Guttenberg went on to print the first Bible that was commonly available to ‘ordinary’ people, printed in his native German.

This invention has been credited to bringing about a step-change in western civilisation. Suddenly, written communication went from linear, individualised copies – owned exclusively by those with the time and money to invest in such time consuming frippery – to the mass market. Nothing was the same ever again.

In 20 years, these early printing presses had already turned out an estimated 20 million books. Fry used the wonderful term benign virus to describe the impact on society.

The Gutenberg Bible could be credited with leading almost inevitably to the Protestant revolution. Suddenly everyone could study the scriptures, and everyone became their own theologian. Or almost everyone. It was resisted of course- change usually is. In many parts of the Christian world, the Bibles were banned.

The step-change described above was perhaps one of the key factors that shaped the path of a society in its tranformation from the medieval world to the birth of moderism.

It has been said that we are in the middle of our own step-change, or paradigm shift.
The modern world, with all its assumptions of rational, ordered predictability, is being swept away by a new media revolution. Where is leads us, and how God will meet with us within it, is uncertain.

Like the Luddites, or the medieval church leaders, there are some for whom such change brings conflict and destruction. They faced new industrial realities- economic forces that were bigger than individuals, bigger than families, bigger than communities. No amount of smashed spinning jennies, or smashed printing presses can alter this.

Does this make change good, or bad?

I suppose this depends on your perspective. But ultimately, it is inevitable. It has few moral or value based imperatives, but rather it is the context into which we Christians bring our own values to bear.

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