Monday, July 06, 2020

hiSTORY

Like many people, we have watched Hamilton: an American Musical on Disney + in the last few days. We saw it live in London last summer—you must see it live—and it was interesting to compare the original and London casts, and an American and British audience.

Hamilton is as good as musicals get, as good as theatre gets. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius, with so many strings to his bow, not least such a gifted collaborator (though, dare I say it, not the best of singing voices). But it is important to know what you are watching. This is art, not historical record. Hamilton takes enormous liberties with chronology, geography, and personalities, in order to tell a compelling story in 2 hours 40. Lin Manuel Miranda makes choices as to who ‘lives’, who ‘dies’, who tells the story. If you want to know some of those choices, start with reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin, and Lin’s own luscious book of the making of Hamilton. And then keep going.

Anyone who comes away seeing Alexander Hamilton as a hero has missed the point. (And, by the way, he was neither an immigrant nor an abolitionist; though he did alienate would-be allies, and was at the centre of America’s first political sex scandal.) Indeed, there are no heroes here. Washington comes closest, but works hard to disabuse us of such a nonsense, to deconstruct his own legend, revealing the human beneath. There are no heroes, or even anti-heroes, but several characters who serve as protagonist and antagonist to one another: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—founding fathers, all—and, in a sub-plot of their own, Angelica and Eliza. What Hamilton presents to us so well—and here, Lin’s acting of the titular role is so good—is the insecurities that drive each character, the moments of doubt and self-doubt. The ways in which characters that see themselves as polar opposites are, in fact, mirror-images, sharing the same weaknesses. In many cases, despising most in another character what most reflects themselves. Too cautious, too reckless, too clever, too venal.

On reflection, it turns out that Hamilton is history after all. Because, all history is a telling of a story, selective, crafted, certain things placed in the spotlight and others lost in the shadows. And not only history, but a deep exploration of American psychology (note the productions sub-title: an American Musical). It could not be a more current commentary of the contradictions of American politics.

In understanding ourselves, we need neither to simply possess a history nor to erase and replace that history, but, to listen to the ways in which our history—the story we tell—impacts on others, and to listen to their story, their telling of history. Paying special attention to the voices that have been written out of our narrative. Seen in this light, Hamilton is not the final word, but unfinished words that should give hope, and not just entertainment.

You’ll be back.


Thursday, July 02, 2020

Personhood

Gospel set for Holy Communion today: Matthew 9:1-8.

And after getting into a boat he crossed the water and came to his own town.

And just then some people were carrying a paralysed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

 

The term ‘individual’ is appropriate for a wrapped chocolate biscuit, but insidious when applied to human beings. Human beings are not individuals but distinct persons: that is, we exist in, and only in, inter-woven connection with others.

Reading this Gospel passage from an individualistic perspective, we see a disabled man and an unspecified number of able-bodied people. Heard from the perspective of personhood, we note a community of people who are each enabled and enabling, who are enable-embodied. The paralysed man can move because of those around him, and they can move with purpose and towards Jesus because of him. And when the paralysed man walks, he does not move from being ‘less’ to being ‘more’, but remains enable-embodied, in new-found ways. This is important for many reasons, including the fact that paralysis remains present in the community, not least as demonstrated by the scribes.

This difference, and tension, between individualism and personhood goes to the heart of Jesus’ engagement with the scribes (even if individualism, as we know it today, is a later idea). Even though they associate tribally as ‘scribes’ (and here we must note that it is possible to be enabled and enabling in unhealthy ways), within this grouping we see a severing of the ties with fellow human beings. They have chosen to think the worst of someone else—as is so prevalent a reflex today.

In calling them out on this, Jesus chooses to use the term ‘the Son of Man’. This is a symbolic figure from the book of the prophet Daniel, a human form who represents a remnant community, through which God will demonstrate enduring faithfulness in a new beginning. This is underlined in Matthew’s commentary on the response of the crowds, who see in the action claimed as being done in the name of the Son of Man that God has given authority to forgive people to human beings, plural.

The heart of the matter, then, is how as a new community we learn to be healthily enable-embodied; and the first step is learning to forgive those who inevitably get it wrong—knowing that we, ourselves, will need such forgiveness.


Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A tragedy in the making

On Friday, a 28-year old Sudanese asylum-seeker was shot dead by armed response police officers in Glasgow, after stabbing six people. I don’t doubt the bravery of those police officers, nor that this was their last, not first, resort. This is a tragedy for all concerned, and for my hometown. And at the centre of the tragedy is a young man whose hopes of a new life were cut short. His name was Badreddin Abadlla Adam.

I am not a journalist, and I have not researched his background. But until last year, Sudan had lived under a 30-year long dictatorship, that had imprisoned and tortured opponents and practiced ethnic genocide in Darfur. This young man never knew what it was to live in a society at peace. He was precisely the kind of person who should qualify for asylum, having made it to the UK, most likely through the exploitation of people traffickers.

Before any facts were established, Nigel Farage had tweeted that this was precisely the danger to our citizens we face for allowing illegal immigrants. To be clear, this man was not an illegal immigrant, he was an asylum-seeker. But Farage is not entirely wrong, in as much as we do treat asylum-seekers as criminals. From the moment they arrive, they experience the ‘hostile environment’, official government policy (only just acknowledged and now to be reviewed) of making their life so miserable that they will choose, at any point in the process, to voluntarily return home. Preferring to take their chances with a genocidal dictator than in a democracy. Let that sink in.

Then, rather than direct resources to provide essential, expert mental health support for people suffering from PTSD, money is given to private companies to provide the most basic accommodation. Asylum-seekers being an income stream for unscrupulous landlords. In effect, they become property.

And so, yes, it is perhaps inevitable that sooner or later some such young man might just break, with devastating consequences for those who happen to be around him.

And it is easier to blame immigrants than to take responsibility for our own actions.

According to the most recent statistics I could find, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales; and a further two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in Scotland. As Scotland has a much smaller population, I can only assume that it is an even greater problem there than south of the border, that the men of the long-term, predominantly white, British population cannot control themselves and are a danger to those around them, especially British women.

And the silence is deafening.

So, don’t give me your bullshit about how we are civilised men of honour, taking a principled stand to protect our communities from those who would betray us with their bleeding hearts.


Sulking children

Author Candice Carty-Williams has won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards for her novel Queenie. She is the first black woman to do so. Interviewed, she admitted to a host of emotions: pride at her work, and gratitude towards her publishing team, alongside sadness and confusion that she should be the first black woman to have won the award.

BBC Radio 2 shared the news on social media, and the comments are vile, ranging from the racist, “this isn’t about talent, it’s about politics: no white authors will win prizes for the next few years” to the racist, “she’ll have to live with never knowing whether she only won because of the colour of her skin” (white authors, how confident are you?) to the racist, “this prize should be about writing, not skin colour” (indeed; so why is she the first? and why are you so defensive?) to the desperately emotionally-stunted, “If she can’t even be happy to win, she should give the award back.”

In the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, from Matthew chapter 11, Jesus describes his society as being like children sitting on either side of the marketplace, one group calling out, “we played the flute for you, but you would not dance,” and the other responding, “we wailed, and you would not mourn.”

Jesus is describing learnt, coded, culture. Men led the community in celebrations, such as weddings; women led the community in lament, such as funerals; and boys and girls learnt their expected roles—as leaders and followers, depending on context—through role-play, while the adults went about their daily business. But the role-play had broken down, into two camps, each aggrieved at the other.

Jesus’ point was, surely, (at least in part) we’ve forgotten how to hold celebration and mourning together. He goes on, John (the Baptist) came in prophetic severity, proclaiming God’s imminent judgement on injustice, and you dismissed him; I came proclaiming God’s embrace of the marginalised, and you dismiss me. But the two go hand-in-hand, each taking a turn to be the leading- and responding beat.

It seems to me that Carty-Williams gets this, and that her critics don’t.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Idol chatter

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall make you no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the LORD your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.”

Exodus 20:1-6

(The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter)

In these days, I find myself in conversations with very defensive white people. Our defensiveness ought to tell us something, if we will listen. I hear bewildered statements like “The world’s gone mad” and “Where will it end?” and a particular focus on statues.

The power statues have over us calls to mind the Commandments. Through Moses, God warns against the raising of likenesses, images. Later in the biblical account, as this word is ignored, such likenesses are called idols. Representations of some claimant over us, to our allegiance; things made by God, for blessing and fruitfulness, to whom we hand over a power to hold us captive. To enslave us.

When we cannot even acknowledge that there may be good reason to pull down the likeness of a literal slave trader, or, even more recently, to revisit whether it is a good idea to immortalise a man who was a vocal supporter of Adolf Hitler, then are not these images idols?

I am not arguing that there should be no sculpture, no three-dimensional tactile art. Indeed, such things are a way in which we explore the world, and our place in it.

I do wonder whether it might be a good practice for any and all public statues to stand on their plinth for one hundred years, and then be removed; alongside an assessment—a re-evaluation—of their impact. This would not be to erase history—and certainly, not to lose the gift of the sculptor to society—but to engage with history.

In issuing such a strong warning against the power of likenesses to cut us off from our Creator and Redeemer, from ourselves as created and redeemed, and from our neighbour, God speaks about generations. God demands retribution from only three or four generations, and upholds treaty obligation to the (vastly more) thousandth.

And this is why I wonder about a one-hundred-year statue limitation. Three or four generations. The longer reparations go unreconciled, the more difficult they become. We are all guilty of sin, of that which separates us from God and neighbour, and of the particular ways that manifests itself in our lives. It isn’t enough to argue, “On such an exacting measure, no-one is guiltless!” and it isn’t enough to say, “It is dangerous to assess historical figures on the morals of our times rather than theirs.” Yes, Baden-Powell’s vocal homophobia must be seen in the context of a society that was structurally hostile to gay people; yes, our common values are very different today; and, yes—take note—these may change again in the future. Neither removing a statue too soon nor leaving it for ever are wise.

Statues commemorate the people we look up to, and statues in turn shape us, mould us, set us hard—and brittle—in bronze. The longer we gaze upon a slave trader in admiration, the harder it is for us to be set free from our own captivity to the believe that some people are justifiably more human than others. (The great irony being the diminishing of our own humanity.) The longer we gaze on statues of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in public parks and squares the length and breadth of the land, the longer we justify ‘our’ Empire, and the harder it becomes to journey on into freedom.

Sometimes what we need is to be melted down and remade, by the One who creates and redeems, and who is committed to doing so through all generations.

Where does it all end? My hope is in it arriving at the life shared with us by the God who unites all. My expectation is that this will be a life-long pattern of being brought out of the house of slaves. I note how hard we resist that kindness. Lord, have mercy.


Corpus Christi


Today is Corpus Christi, the day the Church gives thanks for the institution of Holy Communion. That institution took place on the day we call Maundy Thursday, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, illegal trial by night, hours before his murder. We mark that too, but as a sombre occasion. This day, Corpus Christi, is a celebration of the gift, of the benefits of this tangible expression of an intangible reality, Jesus with us, nourishing is with his presence.

As a faith tradition, we remember by enacting. Our memory, our belonging, our identity is embodied. Our being drawn into the body of Christ is embodied. As a faith community, the local congregation of which I am a part enacts Holy Communion every Thursday and Sunday. But this year, we have been unable to enact Holy Communion, on Maundy Thursday or Corpus Christi, or any of the days since we went into lockdown. So, what does that do to our remembering? What impact does it have on our memory, our belonging, our identity?



For most of my life, I have been a writer. From perhaps the age of four, I wrote, first with a pencil and then with a pen, until the age of eighteen. A pencil and a pen are not the same, exactly, for it is easier to erase what you write with a pencil; but they both involve the physical shaping of characters with a tool.



From the age of eighteen, my writing experienced a shift to a keyboard. The muscle-memory of writing started to be over-written. As it happens, I have dyspraxia, a spatial and memory impairment, and one that has impacted me more as I have grown older. I have never been able to keep hold of the layout of a keyboard. I go looking for every letter every time.



More recently, my writing has experienced another shift. Now, most of my writing is done on a virtual keyboard. Now I write with my two thumbs, rather than the index and middle fingers of my right hand. Now, the gap between locating the letters is shorter, though I still have to locate them.

I am a writer, and yet I have forgotten the art of using a pen. That is to say, I can still make marks on a page—indeed, I do so as a deliberate, intentional discipline, keeping a paper journal of my days—but they are scrawls. As a lover of words, and a lover of letters, as a lover of crafting these things and of the physicality of paper over a screen, these inky scratchings rarely give me pleasure.

When we gather together in a church building and share in a common liturgy that draws us once again to Jesus, standing around the Lord’s table or kneeling before it side by side at the rail; when I take bread in my hand and press it down onto the outstretched hand of another member of the body of Christ; this is a precious thing.

But it is far from what Jesus did. As fundamentally connected, and as fundamentally removed, as writing this on my smartphone is from writing it with a pen. We have lost the embodiment of a meal eaten together, watered it down to elements of wafer and wine, followed by a chocolate-coated biscuit and a cup of tea.

At this moment in time, we cannot meet together to participate in Holy Communion as we have been familiar. But we still need to eat and drink. And in so doing, we may remember or forget Jesus.

It isn’t the same, and I’m not dismissing the practices of my church tradition that have evolved over time. But here is an opportunity to pick up something that has been lost long before novel coronavirus, rather than wring our hands at something that has been suspended because of it.

So, eat and drink boldly, with thanksgiving. A broken blessing, and a blessed breaking.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

White chalk


If we are honest, we all have ‘kairos’ moments that break into our days, confronting us with systemic racism and the white privilege it perpetuates. Opportunities to turn from one often unconscious perspective and to seek to move deeper into a new outlook. Here’s another of mine.

Jo Saxton is my second-favourite Jo in the whole world, second only to the one I married. When I first knew her, she was Jo Oyeniran, and she was the first British Nigerian I properly met. She was an undergrad in the university department where I was a postgrad. I was the teaching assistant on one of the modules she took, on the portrayal of biblical characters in art and film.

On one occasion, I wrote the names of several students on the board. I don’t even remember why. On the list, I wrote Jo O. This was the name by which I was aware that she was called, more ‘neutral’ and, from a white perspective, ‘less racist’ than ‘Black Jo’, by which she was also referred to. But I had never taken the time to find out how she felt.

Jo called me out. Not good enough. You need to do better.

Say my name.

Jo called me out, to do better, to overcome my toxic laziness. Lazy, because it is quicker to write O than Oyeniran. Toxic, because I probably would have written Oliver or O’Brien in full. Probably; I can’t say, for sure: I am not a committed racist, but a casual one. [Edit: even had I abbreviated a white name, the action would not have had the impact. Jo responds, “Hey Andrew—thanks for your reflection. I don’t recall that specific conversation, but I remember how tiring it was, how frustrating and dehumanizing it was to have my name erased, or to be known as “the Black Jo”. And how over the years I stopped calling people out, stopped demanding people learn my name, because I didn’t have the capacity to do it all the time. I side eyed some people, backed away from others. But I noted it and absorbed it all. It cost me. So it was good to see an example of where/who I was before I was worn down in that area.”]

And Jo called me out, to try harder, to do better, to overcome my fear. Fear of an unfamiliar name, fear of spelling it wrong, fear of causing offence, fear as an excuse—I don’t think Jo would have minded had I needed help spelling her name.

Say my name.

I am deeply thankful that she called me out. I am deeply sorry that she needed to. I am glad that she was brave enough—for, in that room, I held the structural power; she held onto the moral empowerment.

Say my name.

My own name causes me enough problems. I cannot begin to tell you how many people can’t say my name. Dowsett. Dow•sett. The ‘e’ hovers somewhere between ‘e’ (Dow•sett) and ‘I’ (Dow•sitt). But I get Daw•sett or Dossett or godknowswhatelse. My wife’s maiden name is similarly problematic. Is it Mar•fell, or Marf•le? In his best man’s speech at our wedding, my brother commiserated with her. He had taken to using his flatmate’s name when ordering pizza, and would recommend it, except that her new flatmate had the useless name. And so, as his wedding present to her, he gave her his flatmate's name—Matthews—to use at her discretion. Oh, for a good, solid name like Saxton!

Even when I correct people’s pronunciation, they persist; largely, I think, because we tend to listen to confirm what we already think we know, and not to hear and understand and learn and grow. One form teacher in particular refused to say my name correctly. In the end, I refused to respond at registration, forcing him to look up from the register to see me in the room. Reader, I called him out.

On a superficial level, this is the same. “See! Not racism! You’re being overly sensitive, unnecessarily defensive. Black stubbornness. White guilt. Get over it!” In fact, they are entirely opposite. No-one ever shied away from my name because it was different. On the contrary, they assumed a familiarity.

White friends, we need to stop making excuses, attempting to justify ourselves, to distance ourselves from the problem, to tip the playing field back in our favour.

Jo, I am so grateful for your presence in my life, your friendship over the years, your challenge on more than one occasion. Forgive me for honouring you, perhaps clumsily, and without permission. You are welcome to edit this telling, as you have edited my life; though you may choose not to. You are undeniably part of my story, but you are so much more. Thank you.

Friends, you will benefit from Jo Saxton’s writing and podcasting.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

White privilege


I’ve seen several posts shared over recent days, written by white people who want to stress that they have never seen systemic racism in their workplaces; the occasional explicitly racist individual—bad apples—yes, but not systemic racism. And I believe them. Not that there is no systemic racism, but that they don’t see it. That we don’t see it. That we don’t see what it costs people of colour to inhabit spaces shaped by whiteness, default spaces seen by whites as neutral.

There have been moments that stand out for me, when my white privilege has been made visible. At the time, they have been deeply uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I am thankful for them. I need more of them in my life. This has nothing to do with self-flagellation, and everything to do with being awoken and invited into a deeper experience of life as a human being.

A story. Back when my wife and I were engaged, she worked in an Anglican cathedral bookshop. It is hard to imagine a whiter space, nor a more English one. I used to meet her there, arriving ahead of the end of her shift, in order to browse the shelves. On one occasion, a Rastafarian came into the shop, like me, looking around. I watched him, and a smile broke out on my face. I smiled because his presence was a joy to me, a delight. His very being in that space made it more colourful, in every sense but in particular in the sense of God’s creative handiwork. Watching him was as watching God breathe life into the room. Smiling was both a prayer of praise to God and a reaching out to another human being who bore God’s likeness.

He did not see it that way. In fact, he confronted me, wanted to know why I was watching him, why I was grimacing at his being in that space? Did I feel that he did not belong there, as I did, as people like me did?

I was shocked. That, by the way, is white privilege right there. It had not crossed my mind that this proud (I mean that entirely in a positive sense) man should be bone tired of white people watching him, keeping an eye on him, in case he stole something, in case he turned threatening.

I was offended. That, by the way, is white privilege. I had just experienced prejudice. And yes, it was prejudice; but it was not reverse racism. Prejudice is forming a conclusion ahead of all of the facts; racism is prejudice plus power. In this case, his prejudice was founded on countless previous experiences, encounters with white people; more than reasonable odds. But in that space, and however I felt, I had the power. I was the one who, taking offence at prejudice, could have accused him of causing a scene, of being ungrateful, of demonstrating the very reason why some white people are explicitly racist and why it is just so damn hard for those of us who aren’t. I was the one who could shut that space down to him in a way he could not shut it down for me.

I was confused, as to why a black man—someone used to prejudice—would be guilty of prejudice. That, by the way, is white privilege. An ignorance—not wilful, but lazy; questions I had never had to ask, let alone wrestle with.

I was hurt. That, by the way, is white privilege, exposed. Over sensitive. Myself cast as victim. I am neither an explicit racist nor a bleeding-heart liberal nor a right-on Leftie; but I have been, largely unconsciously, shaped by white privilege (among other privileges) my whole life.

We talked, and it was okay. But I was left shaken. Which, as I said, was deeply uncomfortable at the time, but necessary. Absolutely necessary. My experience in no way whatsoever equates to his; but, it did make my white privilege visible to me.

It is about me, about what I needed to learn, and need to re-learn again and again and again. But—the paradox of all true learning—it wasn’t and isn’t primarily about me. I move closer to who I am when I am dethroned from the centre of my life. No-one needs my approval—and only when I understand that does my affirmation truly build the other person up. No-one owes me a debt of gratitude—and only when I understand that is it safe for me to receive gratitude when it is freely-given. And no-one needs my awkward smile, but that’s another matter.

There have been other such moments I could tell you about, and perhaps sometime I will. This is not a class we graduate from, though our sight can become clearer or more clouded.

If you are white—and if you have read this far—I wonder how you reacted to this re-telling? Honestly. But, please, respectfully.

If you are black, please forgive me my ongoing mis-steps, as I try not to shed my skin but to see you more clearly, and with a clean heart.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Love is all you need


To my friends who say, “Why can’t we just love one another?” I hear you. I really do. But to love one another must include dismantling systemic injustice* and to say “Why can’t we just love one another?” without seeking to do so is not love.

So, yes, may you love truly and be truly loved. For that is, indeed, the greatest imperative on all of our lives.


*including the hold systemic injustice has on ourselves—which, I’d argue, we can’t do in our own strength but only by the grace and power of God’s Holy Spirit and in community with others so empowered. And this, of course, is an answer to the question, “Why can’t we just love one another?” for we are all enslaved by fear of the other, and need to be set free.

On the toppling of idols


Edward Colston was a seventeenth century English merchant, slave trader, Member of Parliament, and philanthropist. That is to say, he sold black people as a commodity, using the profits to secure political influence and to bestow benefits upon white people. Between 1680 and 1692 the company he worked for and went on to direct trafficked 84,000 souls across the Atlantic. In order to maximise profit, an estimated 19,000 sick or deceased Africans were thrown overboard. Both those figures are conservative estimates.

For years, decades, people have campaigned for his statue to be taken down. And yet it remained. Some pointed to the good public works he had done (perhaps we should sell a few more black people to raise fresh capital?). Some argued against the erasing of history (then why not replace it with a statue honouring the dispossessed?). Yesterday protestors pulled down the statue and symbolically rolled it 'overboard' into the harbour.

Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel called this action “utterly disgraceful” and went on to say “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about...It’s right the police follow up and make sure that justice is undertaken with these individuals that are responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour.”

What does justice look like?

There is a long history in this nation, as in America, of protesting injustice, of rallies and marches. Of peaceful protests that turn to violence when met by heavy-handed policing, or to vandalism when peaceful protest is ignored and ignored and ignored. This would include the Jarrow march, the Suffragette movement, the Peterloo Massacre, multiple Tudor uprisings, to mention just a few English examples.

There is just as long a history of those who benefit from the status quo denouncing such actions as utterly disgraceful, public disorder, an affront to every law-abiding citizen.

But law and order without justice always perpetuates injustice. Always. And under such circumstances, justice is more important than law and order. Indeed, lawless disorder may be the imperative of justice.

If you are more outraged that a statue of Edward Colston was pulled down yesterday than you are that it stood for over a hundred years, you are part of the problem.

Indeed, we are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution. Listen, not for the purposes of refuting but for the purpose of understanding better. Learn. Educate yourself. I say that to myself as much as to anyone else.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost




Pentecost

O happy Pentecost:
novel coronas of light,
spread from face to face, left
3,000 dead to self and rising
in Christ
in just one day;

down town ablaze
with flames consuming every
tribal division, and
drawing diverse shades
into one harmony:
may it be so in our day, too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Reframing the narrative


This morning I read a long and detailed letter written by a Conservative MP exonerating Dominic Cummings.

The letter reframed the narrative, from a public health crisis to a personal story in which Mr Cummings is the victim of unfair attention; and, moreover, in which others coming to a different conclusion is merely a private matter.

Reframing the narrative is how it works.

Just as whenever a black man is killed by a white man in the US, people are quick to reframe the narrative away from injustice, and indeed endemic systemic racism: clearly there were justifiable reasons that have yet to come to light; the white man felt threatened, and is entitled to defend himself.

Always attend to who reframes the narrative, and to what end.

Stay alert. [Control the virus.] Save lives.

I can't breathe


[first posed yesterday on Facebook]

Yesterday, I went for a run. I pushed myself, hard. Knees pumping. And about 7km in, at the top of a long, steep bank, I had to stop. I needed to catch my breath...

Now imagine being a black man, unable to breathe, having your life crushed out of you by a white police officer with his knee on your neck. While his colleague stands by. While passers-by stop and tell him to remove his knee, and are ignored.

Imagine that this is not a shocking unprecedented event, but the latest in a long line for a community who collectively struggle to catch breath.

Imagine that, adding insult to injury, countless reasonable voices will offer justifications for why this happened, and insist that we remain silent until all the facts are established.

The facts were established long ago.

To my black friends, and the wider black community this night, this long night, I say, I see you. And I confess before you that I see you imperfectly, through clouded, milky-white eyes. But I want to see. And I believe that our heavenly Father sees you perfectly, even through his tears.

To those who act from systemic racist scripts, I see you, too. And, again, I see you imperfectly. But, again, I believe that God, our redeemer and judge, sees you perfectly. May he both judge and redeem us.

How long, O Lord?

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

For the record


For the record, thoughts originally posted on Facebook over the past 24 hours:

-----
Yesterday, the Prime Minister mistakenly identified the public mood as confused. Today, Dominic Cummings rightly named it as anger, and as justifiable anger, but claimed that it is misdirected anger: we are angry because we have listened to inaccurate reporting by the media, and so he would put the record straight.

I choose to take his statement concerning what he did and why he did it at face value. I have sympathy for him. And I remain dismayed that he is unrepentant.

At a time of national crisis, he, the architect of government policy, failed to do his civic duty at the first hurdle. He then used the hurdle to justify his failure; broke both the letter and the spirit of the law; and blamed the media for reporting a story in the public interest without full knowledge of the facts in the face of dissembling rather than transparency from 10 Downing Street.

What was asked of us is clear, regarding the self-isolation of those who have C-19 symptoms in their own home at which they were resident at the time, and the quarantining of all household members. Rightly, an exception was made for any parent who came down with such symptoms and was living with a violent partner, who feared for the welfare of their child not because of coronavirus (which appears to affect children differently) or hunger (thousands of people have signed up to deliver food to isolating households) but because of domestic violence. This provision meant that the police could not prevent anyone in such circumstances from leaving their home, nor could local councils or shelters turn them away on account of their condition. Sadly, circumstances across the nation have shown that this exception was and is needed. But Cummings has broken both the letter and the spirit of the matter.

There is no shame in not having the strength of character to deal with a national, indeed international, emergency. None at all. But to not see it is a tragedy. And a missed opportunity that stores up future tragedies. And to not have friends around you who can help you to see that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.


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Today, several bishops of the Church of England have received threats, ranging from people threatening to leave the Church to death threats, for criticising the government. Including quite literally at least one member of the House of Lords being told to stay out of politics, or it will be the death of you.

If you feel so strongly that the Church should remain quiet, then please do go ahead and leave. It is a free world, and we are not a private members’ club.


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STAY AT HOME > PROTECT THE NHS > SAVE LIVES

We were explicitly told not to travel to quieter parts of the country to self-isolate, in case, should we become ill, we place an additional burden on local hospitals.

By his own account, Dominic Cummings’ London-based family had to draw upon the resources of a Durham hospital.

The government are mocking the people.

The Conservative Party has a very large majority in parliament. We need to see a very, very significant back bench rebellion. Public silence speaks to the character of every MP.

So far we have heard a few brave voices. This morning, a junior Minister has resigned his post in protest. May this be the beginning.


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In the light of the Dominic Cummings affair, I want to reflect on Jesus’ instruction that whoever is without sin cast the first stone (John chapter 8).

The first thing that I note is that Jesus was responding to a group of powerful men who were calling for someone to be put to death. To my knowledge, no representative of the Church of England has suggested, on or off the record, that Dominic Cummings be killed for what he has done; but that he be removed from his post. I am, however, aware that several Church of England bishops have received death threats for speaking out against the government; which is a consequence of the populism Dominic Cummings has carefully cultivated.

The second thing I note is that Jesus fronts down a group of powerful men who have broken both the letter and the spirit of the law.

They claim that the Law of Moses demands that this woman, caught in the very act of adultery, be stoned to death. This is a subtle, or not-so-subtle, revision. The law was understood to instruct that, under certain circumstances, a couple found guilty of adultery be put to death; but they have not brought the man to justice. They have broken the letter of the law.

Moreover, they have broken the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is concerned with the need a society has for trustworthiness, truthfulness and integrity; and that, for the sake of the common good, those who believe that the law does not apply to them are not accommodated. As far as we can tell, in Jesus’ day, the spirit of the law was enforced far more than the letter. However, in bringing this woman before Jesus, these powerful men are abusing the spirit of the law in order to score points against him.

Of course, the woman has also broken the letter and the spirit of the law, another part of the law, the law prohibiting adultery; and, again, Jesus calls her to repentance.

The third thing I note is that Jesus begins to write, in the public space in which all this is unfolding. We don’t know what he writes, but we do know that he keeps writing until every last powerful man who thought that it was a good idea to associate themselves with this travesty have realised that their position is indefensible, and conceded as much in public. Only then does Jesus stop writing.

The fourth thing I note is that Jesus didn’t go looking for this confrontation, but neither did he ignore it. I have far better things to do with my time, caring for hurting people living in previously unimaginably hard circumstances, than use the written word to shame powerful men who show a disregard to the letter and spirit of the law at the cost of others. But, for the sake of those people I am called to serve, and following the example of Jesus, I can’t ignore this.

Were I to do so, I would in effect be adding my own metaphorical stone to the pelting of already hurting people.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Mental Health Awareness Week, day 7





“...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Galatians 5:22, 23

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness. According to the Bible, showing kindness is evidence of living in harmony with God’s life-giving and -sustaining Spirit, in common with other related attributes.

But this is the same Spirit who inspired, who breathed life into, the passion of psalmists and prophets, and Mary’s song, in hopeful insistence that the mighty who are indifferent to the cry of the common people be brought low, and those who have been brought low be lifted up and honoured.

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do in relation to another human being is cry out for God to humble them, to long with all your being for their downfall. Not in order that they be destroyed, but because in being brought low we might actually come back to our senses, and as a pre-curser for being raised up again.

How do you know whether your motivation is the Spirit, or a self-promoting, self-glorifying envy of another? That is a matter of soul searching, of commitment to integrity, of dependence on the very Spirit of life. To commit to kindness is not to suppress anger or sadness at injustice. And our shared, distributed mental health is, at least in part, a barometer of justice/injustice.

Sometimes the kindest thing God can do for us is bring us down. And sometimes, the kindest thing God can do for us is lift us up. Kind, because, as the psalmist discovered (139) if I am brought down to the shadowy half-life existence of Sheol, even there I am held by God; and if I rise into the heavens, there, too, God holds me. In the ups, and the downs, and every point in between. God’s intention is not to bring us to a level place, so much as into harmony with rhythms ordained by and experienced with him.

There is grace in being brought low, and in being lifted up again.

Dominic Cummings Must Go


Over recent weeks, I have taken the funeral of a man whose wife of over sixty years was unable to see him for over two weeks leading up to his death. Of a woman whose husband of over fifty years had been unable to see her for the last six weeks of her life. Funerals for several families who had to decide which son would get to see and say goodbye to their father. And where families have had to decide, who gets to be present at the funeral, and who has to look on online?

Everything about human love wants to be together at times of vulnerability. Some of these families pleaded special case, to be the exception to the rules. All of them accepted that, hard though this is, this was what was required of us.

All of them have been told today that, throughout this period, it was really down to individual families to decide how best to interpret and apply the rules.

All of them will go through feeling that, in some way, they have failed their most loved ones. And this has been compounded today. From today, they will ask themselves, would it really have hurt to break the rules?

And the doctors and nurses and vicars who have held the line, and who will carry on being there as families work through a grief made even more painful. My heart goes out to you, too.

Originally posted on Facebook, yesterday.