Responding to violence and fear…

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You know what I am referring to. The news, your Facetwitter feed, even good old fashioned communication- it is full of the desperate events that unfolded in Paris over the last couple of days. Violence and murder done in the name of religion. Violence that grew like poisonous funghi in the shadow cast by other violence.

Events like this have the capacity to shape our age, for good or ill. Our response to it should be to preach caution, to encourage a sense of proportion and to remind people of history, so we might learn from it.

People of faith have a particular role to play here, given the centrality of theology as both framing narrative and ideological justification for unspeakable barbarity. The meaning of ancient texts has become so mixed up with tribal identity and weight of injustice that perhaps it is only from within religion that violence can be challenged. I know this as the hard, unyielding condemning religion I grew up with was transformed through thoughtful engagement with a different kind of belief.

Giles Fraser had this to say about the relationship between iconography and religion;

But, of course, these terrorists weren’t really interested in theology. They thought that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were insulting their human tribe, a tribe they called fellow Muslims. And maybe they were. But whatever else was happening, it was the atheist cartoonists who were performing the religious function and the apparently believing Muslims who had forgotten their deepest religious insights. For any representation of the divine that leads people to murder each other deserves the maximum possible disrespect.

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But back to the point- what should be our response?

I mentioned attempting to retain some perspective. It is so hard to do this when bombarded with so much infotainment/news coverage. Meanwhile extremes are shouted from the margins by those who have a different tribal agenda- Muslims are all evil, as is their religion; we are all under attack from immigrants in our midst; all religion is bad; Christians were right all along etc etc.

Let us remember in this white/anglo-saxon/protestant centric world we inhabit that across much of the planet human life is cheap. The deaths in Paris were tragic, dreadful, appalling. But Yesterday in Nigeria around 2000 people were killed in a different Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram. Be honest now- did you know about this? How do you emotionally and intellectually respond?

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Then there are the lessons of even recent history (let us not even mention the dreadful colonial legacy that has far more to do with the creation of terrorism than religion ever could have).

Although we have to start there in a way. At the end of Empire, Britain had lived with terrorism for at least 100 years. The transition from colonial territory to autonomous nation has rarely been peaceful; too many artificial borders imposed on disparate peoples, with a history of being on different sides of the many colonially sponsored conflicts. Britain learned the hard way that conventional warfare is never the long term solution to insurgency and terror. Or rather we had to re learn this again and again, treading a path that is remarkably familiar; concentration camps, secret police, propaganda campaigns that leave no room for dissidents, and along the way many a blood bath; Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland etc etc. Eventually we had to talk to people. We had to turn away from violence and try to make peace in the face of all sorts of provocations.

Ah- but these conflicts were largely about geography, not about ideology, I hear you cry; modern terrorism has no obvious negotiation point; we can not walk away, because it is coming to us- our homes, our streets. It arises internally from our own ethnic minority communities.

I would suggest that there are more similarities than would first appear, it is just that like all post modern movements, terror has globalised. It has worldwide franchises, but power and motivation are still generated in the conflict zones.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America declared a war of vengeance. They were quite open about it at the time. Someone had to pay. First Afghanistan was invaded, with a narrative about evil regimes, then on far shakier evidence (later almost entirely discredited) Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The bulging prison camps became training grounds for new terror movements. Surveillance and a suspension of the rule of law was seen as justifiable and expedient. To support the war effort successive governments incited fear in a wider public who, in general terms, had probably never been so safe. Has it worked? Can we really regard the world, even the USA as a safer place, a better place?

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Here is Owen Jones writing about events in Norway in the wake of their brush with terror;

Three and a half years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then gunned down dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.

Here’s how the murderers who despicably gunned down the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo do not want us to respond. Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

As a nation we are vulnerable to many things in these changing and rootless times. Our chances of early death at the hands of an Islamic terrorist are absolutely tiny. Lots of other things that we live with every day will kill thousands of us; our lifestyles, our motor cars. There is a chance that our over consuming will be the end of our kind.

So let us pause, remember with respect those souls who passed and then try to make peace with ourselves and then with our neighbours.

Jar of peace

The creation of fundamentalist religion…

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I was reading today how the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, has accused the west of creating the conditions which allowed the development of the extreme militant fundamentalist group that is the current enemy number one of the US and her allies- ISIS. It is a sign of how much things have changed in international relations that an Iranian president could say things like this and anyone would be listening. Even more than most of us would listen and think that he is absolutely right.

Anyone ever heard someone say this?-

“More wars are created by religion than just about any other cause.”

It is one of those truisms that, even though very easily challenged by a cursory look at history (witness both world wars in the last C) is remarkably persistent in our culture. Religion creates fervently held divergent ideas and fanatics who would defend these ideas at any cost.

Karen Armstrong (she of the Charter for Compassion initiative) has written a new book entitled Religion and the history of violence. She deals with this subject in a remarkable article in The Guardian today, which is really worth reading in full. In the article, she deals with the co-existence of violence and religion throughout history, arguing that in most cases, religious violence is intermingled with political expediency in such a way that it is almost impossible to describe the cause of the violence as being the religion itself.

She next deals with the rise of this thing called ‘secularism’, which was the West’s answer to perceptions of the danger of allowing religion to mix with politics.

When dealing with more recent religious conflicts, she had this to say;

When secularisation was implemented in the developing world, it was experienced as a profound disruption – just as it had originally been in Europe. Because it usually came with colonial rule, it was seen as a foreign import and rejected as profoundly unnatural. In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte.

 

Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.

Fundamentalism as reaction, not as consequence of faith itself. Pretty much what the Iranian President is saying. Armstrong goes on to say this;

Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional.

 

When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme.

 

The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.

It feels to me there is great wisdom in these words. Contrast them with the rising cry of violence that our government is rushing to join. The answer to violent groups like ISIS appears to be, more violence- as if this will ever put out the flames. As if this will remove the circumstances that led to the violence in the first place.

The counter cry will arise- evil can not be allowed to stand. Men of violence must be opposed. Justice should flow like a river.

But we have been here before have we not?

 

Church as museum…

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I love old church buildings, so what else would I do to fill my solitary evenings but to go and find one? I took a drive out over the Black Isle to Cromarty, a lovely old town overshadowed slightly by looming oil rigs being repaired out in the firth. There I discovered Cromarty East Church.

The East Church, the former Parish Church of Cromarty is a remarkable building of national importance, not only for its architecture but also for its representation of ecclesiastical and social change. The physical additions, alterations and remodellings carried out at the church bear witness to specific periods in the history of Cromarty and of Scotland with times of prosperity, rises in population, the influence of individuals and changes in liturgical practice.

It is principally the events of the 18th century that have given the East Church the outward appearance we see today. The survival of the interior in such an unaltered fashion has led to the East Church’s reputation as ‘unquestionably one of the finest 18th century parish churches in Scotland, the epitome of the development of Presbyterian worship during that century. There is something satisfying about its long, low form with its simple clear-glazed windows and its intimate interior, bringing preacher and congregation together in a very direct way.’ [John Hume, former Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings for Historic Scotland, describing the East Church in 1999.]

The origins of the church, however, are more ancient and complex than might at first be apparent and recent excavations have confirmed that it stands on the site of the medieval parish church. A large number of burials were uncovered beneath the floor of the church, together with a 15th century grave slab which had been re-used as a step or kerb within the pre-Reformation church to demarcate the approach to the altar. The post-Reformation church was significantly enlarged in 1739 when Alexander Mitchell and Donald Robson, masons, and David Sandieson and John Keith, wrights, added a north aisle to create a T-plan church. Further alterations followed in 1756 and 1798-9, the latter being carried out by Andrew Hossack who added porches to each of the three gable ends and the birdcage bellcote on the east gable.

The interior dates principally from the 18th century, with galleries or lofts added to the north (Poors Loft), west and east (Laird’s Loft) to accommodate the growing congregation. The most elaborate of these is the Laird’s Loft dating from1756 with its paired Ionic columns and Doric frieze. The loft also contains a fine funeral hatchment on the ceiling, painted with the arms of George Ross of Pitkerrie and Cromarty.

Also of note are a series of wooden panels, re-used and incorporated into a number of pews, most notably at the front of the north loft with a sunburst motif and Mackenzie coat of arms.

It is not a Church any more- it is redundant, but better preserved than many that are still in use as it has been restored by the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust. It stands as a museum to religious observance.

The early rituals of the mass, mixed in with the colour and patronage of the rich, which was then replaced by a focus on the pulpit. More pews and galleries were added in to accommodate the sinners now saved, before the numbers dwindled away again.

Along the way the walls took on monuments to men who died in distant colonial wars- Afghanistan, or at sea fighting the French. Their stone tablets sit at ease with those commemorating faithful long serving ministers of religion.

Faith is not contained by buildings, but they come to be like fossils of what once was. Beautiful fossils they are but new life takes on new shapes…

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God’s awkward squad; dissenting and the life of the Spirit…

History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.

What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.

We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.

But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…

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I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?

I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);

John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657

John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630’s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.

He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.

The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.

Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.

He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way.  He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.

And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.

John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.

One epitaph written after his death was this one;

Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!

Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…

But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,

For if they ever meet they will fall out.

Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.

I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.

Thank God for dissenters.

And God save us from dissenters.

The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.

But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.

Being ‘spiritual’: it is bad for you?

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“I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” How many times have you heard someone say this? I suppose, given the devaluation of the word ‘Christian’ with western culture, and the post-modern slide into an elastic pluralistic individualism it is one of those sentences that increasing numbers of us would use to describe themselves (as can be seen from the recent Census data.)

Despite my continued attempts to hold to the ways of Jesus, the idea of a religion-less spirituality appeals to me too; leaving behind all the baggage and rigidities of proscribed doctrine and setting off on my own spiritual adventure…

However, Sam Dawlatly kindly  sent me a link to a story in the Telegraph. Here are a couple of quotes;

People who said said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.

In addition, they are more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

Professor Michael King, from University College London, and his fellow researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.”

…The researchers concluded: “We conclude that there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.

“The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.”

What is going on here then?

Firstly, we must look at the numbers a bit more closely- the study is not huge even though statistically significant;

The study was based on a survey of 7,403 randomly selected men and women in England who were questioned about their spiritual and religious beliefs, and mental state.

Of the participants, 35 per cent described themselves as “religious”, meaning they attended a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Five in six of this group were Christian.

Almost half (46 per cent) described themselves as neither religious nor spiritual, while the 19 per cent remainder said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion.

Members of this final group were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They were also 40 per cent more likely to be receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs, and at a 37 per cent higher risk of neurotic disorder.

The interesting thing is that this study is in contrast with a lot of previous research about the impact of religious belief on measures of psychological and sociological health- which sees faith has having clear benefits, even if more recent research has suggested that some of the self esteem benefits depend on the wider societal norms towards religiosity.

Accepting that this research may simply be a rogue study, there seem to me to be a few possible reasons why those who consider themselves Spiritual (but nor Religious) (SBNR) might appear to be vulnerable as a wider group.

Self selection

The link may well not be causal, but correlational. Perhaps those of us who are spiritually seeking outside the edges of organised religion are doing so because life has driven us there. Perhaps even our negative experiences of church has driven us there. It is hardly surprising that we might be seen to be stressed, troubled and even unwell. These things are not necessarily measures of the futility of the journey, but more part of any real human experience- part of the process of changing, becoming, learning to inhabit our own skin. We learn far more about ourselves in crisis than we ever do in prosperity.

The question might remain as to why this is NOT also the case for the religious? Are they not also  being challenged, shaped and changed by their contact with scripture/teaching/existential challenge? All I can say is that in my experience in Churches, this is rather rare. The pews offer comfort more than adventure.

In this sense, the idea of spiritual travellers on the road, nursing wounds on the way seems not necessarily a negative- rather it offers hope for our humanity. Despite it all, we still strive for connection with the divine.

Belonging

A lot of the presumed benefit of religion at  both a sociological and psychological level seems to be the given sense of belonging, of inclusion and connection to a wider family. Even accepting that in-groups can have all sorts of other problems, this benefit appears to be rather universal. It should not be surprising then that those who are attempting spirituality without community do not experience this benefit.

I have written elsewhere about my conviction that we experience the divine through scripture, through revelation, but perhaps most through community. We humans were made to love- and this is not an abstract proposition divorced from the mess of human contact. Nothing strips us bare, opens us up, sustains us, breaks us down, wounds us, heals us, like community. I also beleive that our approach to theology should also be one of ‘small theologies’ (HT Karen Ward) worked out in community- in respect of ‘big theologies’, but not enslaved to them.

Having said that, it seems that there are surface benefits too in just demonstrating some kind of collective respectability- even if this depends on a wider societal respect for the religious badge that we wear. I confess to less concern about this kind of religiosity. It sounds too much like the stuff that Jesus had no time for.

The lesson here then might be to encourage our spiritual seekers to connect with one another. In these times of total (but fleshless) communication, the deeper community connection described above is a rare commodity, and where it happens it is a precious flame that we should nurture.

Believing

Finally, I have been thinking about the nature of faith itself. We have many models- faith as journey, as destination, as therapy, as national identity, as absolute truth, as means of rescue from hell. From the outside all of these organised expressions of faith appear rigidly codified, doctrinal, dogmatic. They seem to demand blind observance of rules and regulations often policed by male power. Small wonder that we would be suspicious about joining such an organisation. Small wonder that pilgrims remain outside the sites of pilgrimage.

However, I am reminded of this;

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson

Under the Unpredictable Plant

Perhaps like others who are more comfortable with being SBNR I prefer to regard faith as a journey of engagement with the God-in-all-things. To look for the marks left by Jesus on the whole of creation. But in doing this, It has become clear to me that in order to journey we need a means to travel. We need a road, and shoes to walk it with.

Like it or not, this means of travel is religion.

It is the corrective to the self centred me-first spirituality that can often characterise SBNR journeying. You know what I mean- a pick and mix spirituality tailor made to make me feel better about the choices I have made, and the lifestyle I want to live. A situation where morality and love of strangers are elasticated around our own comfort zone. (Not that these characteristics are not to be equally found in churches of course!)

It challenges us towards connection to others who have journeyed first.

To all of those SBNRs out there- I think you are the hope and the conscience of our generation. The depth and meaning you find in the mess of western civilisation will be recorded in art, law, history and handed on to the generations to come- so may you journey well…

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