Wednesday, 8 July 2015

What do we do NOW? (Part 3 - If this is class war, how do we love our enemies?)

In my previous post (Part 2), I described the possibilities that began to emerge for me in the experience of running a local hustings event. The possibilities of honest, critical conversation at local level that begins to take back politics as the domain of us ordinary people at the grassroots, and puts the politicians in their place. But there was more to be said...
When we looked at the geography of the 2015 General Election result, we saw the stark reality of a divided country. In England at least, the urban areas were red, and the rest was blue. Parliamentary constituencies are such that, even though there are substantial 'pockets' of poverty and deprivation spread across the country, 'pockets' where large numbers might well be at the sharp end of this government's policies, the majority of people in those blue constituencies were people for whom the Tories seemed the best, or at least the least worst, option. And what we have seen, time and time again (and most recently in today's budget), is a government which invests in Tory-voting areas and disinvests from non-Tory-voting areas. Just look at the recent decisions around rail investment (northern routes postponed, Great Western main line goes ahead), or funding to local authorities (the 'spending power' of Labour-controlled urban authorities with the highest levels of poverty and deprivation are now dramatically less than those Tory-controlled authorities in more affluent areas).
So if a change of government isn't the answer (and as Labour tear themselves to pieces yet again, in a fight over nothing more substantial than to be more electable, perhaps, than the Tories, the so-called 'opposition' isn't looking like a great alternative), then what can be done? Well, I'm not a political theorist, merely a grassroots community-builder with a bit of faith and a bit of theology, but here's an idea or two...
Firstly, let's acknowledge there's a class war going on here. But let's be clear about the sides. This isn't a 50-50 thing, blue against red, white-collar against blue-collar. No. The wealthy, powerful elite - among them, a whole load of politicians, 'business-leaders' and most of those pulling the strings of the media - don't give a monkeys about those at the other end of the wealth-and-power spectrum. In fact, they see them as a drain on the economy, 'defective consumers', at best people who can be put to work (for the lowest possible wage an employer can get away with), at worst an unwanted cost to the system. And so the cutting, and the scapegoating, and the sanctioning, and the incarcerating, and so on. Divide and rule, blame the poorest and most vulnerable, and get those higher up the income ladder to do likewise, and to live in fear - more than anything else - of sliding into a similar situation themselves.
And in that fear lies a glimmer of possibility. If the Occupy movement left any kind of lasting legacy, it must surely be in that slogan: "we are the 99%". As hard as it might be, those of us who are naturally left-leaning need to acknowledge that the 'we' we need to work on includes a whole bunch of people who voted Tory. Not simply out of selfishness or greed, but out of fear, insecurity, precarity. Many of those who voted Tory might have big incomes, big cars and big houses, but they also have big mortgages. They might not be living hand-to-mouth, not knowing where they'll find the money for the electric meter, like an increasing number of my near neighbours. But they are often in their own, substantial, kinds of debt, and if they lose that well-paid job, well, there might be a bit of a cushion, but the lurking fears are of losing it all. The middle-class might be more 'comfortable', but they're precarious in a way that those in the 1% will never be. They're precarious in a way that the 1% need them to be - to keep working, to keep spending, to keep borrowing, to keep voting. In the class war, the vast majority of Tory voters are helpless conscripts, who can see no alternative.
So secondly (and this is where I get Christian on you), if this is class war, how do we love our enemies? Because that's what my faith calls me to. What does reconciliation look like, in this context?
I have a hunch, and it's no more than that. The hunch is that it looks like an extension of those local conversations I talked about in Part 2. Extending them from the local to the trans-local. Finding ways to put in a room together both people on the sharp end of poverty, deprivation and the brutal austerity regime, and people in middle-class 'comfort', with all their anxious precarity. And getting them to listen to each other, really listen to each other, so that they can be honest enough to share their flawedness ("yes, some things are a result of my own choices, and I wish I'd chosen otherwise"), their privilege ("and if it wasn't for the rental income from our second house, we'd be drowning in debt right now"), their captivity to their desires ("I just can't give up smoking", "I just can't give up the 4-wheel drive"), and their fears (illness, isolation, disability, death - they come to us all, in different ways).
Russell Brand's suggestion (I didn't manage to finish his Revolution, but in what I read I found more grounded insight than hypocritical narcissism, even though there was a bit of both) that AA offer us a model for 'coming to our senses' as a society, as consumers as well as the more traditionally marginalised kinds of addicts - I reckon it's got something going for it. But we need to find ways of bridging the divides of our society in such 'political therapy' groups - or else the scapegoating will continue. We need to recognise our enemies, find them, sit down with them, and learn to love them. It will be immensely vulnerable and costly on all sides. But it is perhaps the only way that real change is going to happen.
There's even the beginnings of a model, in the amazing work of Poverty Truth Commissions in Scotland and in Leeds. Courageous people in these places have come together, from the sharp end of poverty and the sharp end of power, and the former have mentored the latter, and the two have become friends - or if not friends, they have at least grown to understand each other better, and all have changed in the process. And in little ways, slowly, the structures, the processes, the policies, the systems, have begun to change too.
It's not coincidental that in both Scotland and Leeds, the churches have been instrumental in making the PTCs happen. As institutions, or networks, the churches are perhaps better placed than almost anyone else to bring together two sets of people who spend much of their time at war. Because the churches include both in their own bodies, and engage both, externally, from day to day (even acknowledging the ways the churches have often failed and excluded the poorest).
But it remains to be seen if our churches can break out of their own addictions and insecurities, their own fetishism of 'growth' (read, 'institutional survival'), their own tendencies towards top-down, managerial modes of operation and organisational change - to discover their calling as genuinely, radically political bodies, catalysts of grass-roots politics, of trans-local conversation and reconciliation and transformation. I'm hopeful, but I'm under no illusions how much of a challenge it's going to be.
Also worth reading:

What do we do NOW? (Part 2 - After 'that' Election)

I wanted to write a blog post after 'that Election'. You know, the 'shock' election where the Tories won and no one could believe it. Well, no one on Twitter, anyway. Everyone on Twitter (at least, everyone on my timeline) was numb with shock, in denial, and then angry, really angry: with the Tories, with those who voted for them ('stupid', 'selfish', all kinds of labels were thrown around), with the Labour party (poor old Ed), with the voting system, with ourselves...

And that was kind of the problem. As one graphic Venn diagram so poignantly put it, those of us getting angry on Twitter after the election were those of us who were getting each other angry on Twitter before the election, and had convinced ourselves that everyone was angry, that everyone thought like us, that everyone would vote like us. And we were wrong. We'd been talking to ourselves. There were 'others' out there who thought differently. And they voted differently.

On the bank holiday Monday night before the election, I was involved in organizing a hustings event in Hodge Hill. We managed - one way or another - to get all 6 candidates there, and about 50 in the audience. There was a bit of a buzz. It was the only hustings in the constituency, apparently, and - so I was told - quite possibly the first hustings in the constituency for about 20 years. It's a safe Labour seat, you see. Liam Byrne had a comfortable majority (and he's increased it). There was no need for a hustings, I guess. What was the point? But people came, and people were quite excited about it.

I have to be honest, it got mixed reviews. I received one letter of complaint (from someone on the fringes of my church congregation), and one or two rather angry comments via social media. One group of men walked out in the middle of it. But most of those who stayed came out buzzing even more excitedly than when they'd come in: "We must do more of these!" "Let's not wait 5 years for the next one!" "This is really important!"

The mixed reviews were something to do with the fact that we'd done things a bit differently. Quite deliberately. Let me explain...

Firstly, we'd asked the candidates to frame their opening speeches around their 'vision for a Good Society' (thanks to Church Action on Poverty for getting us going on this). It was interesting the amount of consensus, from our rather 'fresh' Green to the elderly-and-distinctly-loony UKIP (with all the usual suspects in between), that emerged - and some of the differences.

Secondly, after a period of questions from the audience (not long enough, frustratingly, for some people), the 'second half' was largely devoted to small group work, exploring 4 questions, with a critical order to them:
  1. What is our vision of 'a good society'?
  2. What can we achieve with 'people power'?
  3. What do we need the politicians to help us with?
  4. What do we need the politicians to do for us?
Some readers of this blog might recognise these questions, or at least a version of them. They are at the core of an 'ABCD' approach to community-building. They are deeply political questions (even though some of those who deploy, or critique, 'asset-based' language may choose to ignore this). But in the context of the hustings event, they simultaneously enlivened many people, and frustrated others: "This isn't what we came for!" "You're wasting time we could be using to grill the politicians!"

It's easier, isn't it, to leave politics to the politicians. It's easier for us, because we don't have to think about it - we just have to put our cross in the box every 5 years and leave it at that. It's easier for them too, because they can just get on with it, without having to worry about the people whose lives they affect profoundly by their daily decisions. They can sew it up between them, the charade of difference and disagreement cloaking the vested interests in the system that continues to profit so many of them, on both sides of the House of Commons.

But when we realise politics begins with us, with the 'grassroots', with the local, with the everyday and the mundane, then we discover there's a whole load that we can do, and change, without needing to refer - or defer - to the politicians. And we also get distinctly more specific about what we do need from them. The balance of power is shifted, the tables begin to turn.

And we also have to acknowledge our own flawedness, the reality that our grand visions for 'a good society' are hampered by our very human tendency to stuff up goodness and vision and society. And that while very occasionally, possibly, there are things that governments can do to contain our 'stuffing up', most of the time we can only deal with its effects in community with each other, face to face, shoulder to shoulder. In fact, we discover, there's an awful lot that governments - and their blessed 'markets' - have done to exacerbate our 'stuffing up', to encourage it, demand it, incentivise it: our atomised lives, our self-interest, our consuming desires, our tendency to blame and victimise the 'other', the list goes on...

So the lesson of the hustings for me is that we need to create more of these local spaces for conversation, for imagination, and for the risky, costly work of proper politics.

There's more... but that needs to wait for Part 3...

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

What do we do NOW? (Part 1 - Rediscovering Ordinary Time)

I'm grateful to my friend Richard Passmore for getting me blogging again. Not that he did so intentionally, but his own recent post has proved to be the final straw to break the camel's back - or perhaps the last drop of water to make the flood to break the dam, to use an image from my last post, back before Christmas last year.

So much has 'happened'. So much that has made me angry, and tongue-tied, and in need of the verbal equivalent of immodium, and paralysed, and frantic with activity, and immersed in books, and immersed with family, friends and neighbours, and so much more, and so much less. I have been particularly aware that a blog like this is as much a place to say the wrong thing, as to occasionally manage to say the right thing. And so, here, for quite a while, I have said nothing.

But I can't hold it in any longer. I need to 'write it out', which is partly to say I need to 'think it out' in my writing, and in the company of those who occasionally, kindly, read what I write and respond thoughtfully, generously and passionately. I want anything but to short-circuit the hard work of 'working through' the complex and difficult stuff (as sometimes the temptation to angry rants can do) - but to plunge into the 'working through' with friends, travelling-companions and co-conspirators.

One of the problems with my blog is that it's ended up being a curious mix of faith (theological and practical), community, politics - and probably more. I'm never quite sure who I'm writing for - apart from me. So when I'm starting again, where do I start?

There is no easy beginning. We have to start in the middle, with its anxieties and more-or-less-concealed 'back stories', assumptions and presumptions. We have to be willing to start from 'here', and to go on the journey, see where it leads. So if you're up for coming with me, here goes (again)...

Let's start with a bit of faith, and with Richard's blog post:

"what if there is something about the way we think about God ... [s]ome flaw in our thinking, our narrative, our approach that means G-d can only ever be glimpsed in passing… an approach so rooted it not only limits us to fleeting moments but by its outworking it means that very few others are able to catch these moments and so start to embrace the presence that is always all around us.
I wonder if we have too narrow a view of the sacraments. Is there space for a kind of sacramental missiology, where we can take an apophatic view of the sacraments? Where by not talking about or practicing the sacrament of communion but by sharing a meal within the context of an ongoing relationship where community is fostered, people are real, that g-d is fleshed and blooded amongst us, but by naming it and calling it out as community or special, it would slip through our fingers like sand"

I think Richard's put his finger on something important here. We could call it the idolatry of 'growth', or of the 'new' - or even just the need for something to be 'happening'.

The scales are beginning to fall from our eyes - perhaps - as we see the damage such idolatry has done, and continues to do, to our planet (as 'endless growth' means faster and faster degradation of the earth's resources), to our economy (and those who supposedly benefit from the imaginary 'trickle down' but in fact suffer most from the endless quest for 'economic growth'), and to ourselves (as we are imprisoned in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with what we have and interminable desire to consume more, ever beyond our reach). Pope Francis, in his radical, challenging encyclical Laudato Si, has expressed this as clearly and powerfully as anyone.

But it seems that in the Christian church, we find it hard to let go of our addiction to 'the new', to the idolatry of 'growth', the illusory miracle of constant 'happenings'. Strategies for growing, and growing younger, abound. 'Transformation' is what we are ever on the lookout for. And we find ourselves impatient with 'ordinary time' (liturgically, that long, green stretch of the year between Pentecost in May and All Saints in November where nothing special happens) - keen, desperate perhaps, to move on, to 'making a difference' again, welcoming in the newest of new births, anticipating fresh resurrections.

And if the 'we' sounds too broad, a little accusatory, let me be honest. I do. I am. I am impatient with 'ordinary time', a little scared of the idea of 'nothing happening'.

But I desperately need it. We desperately need it. And by 'we' I mean the good old Church of England, and much wider, the good-and-broken world. We need to wean ourselves off our addiction, which is not ultimately divine, but entangled in the dysfunctional, destructive desires of neoliberal capitalism. The system needs us to desire growth, newness, eternal youth, constant 'happenings'. And we resist it only by slowly, patiently, boringly learning to inhabit an alternative space where the rules of the system, the needs of the system, don't apply. A space where with boring regularity we attempt to be honest (with ourselves, with others) about our limitations, our flawedness and failures, our frustrated and frustrating desires. A space where we patiently build friendships that can withstand and enable such honesty with grace and humour. A space where we can grow older - not younger - and, ultimately, die. A space where we can begin to learn 'nothing happening' is really OK.

And that space, I suggest, turns out to be where we learn to dwell with the divine, in the everyday. It's where we slowly 'come to our senses' and wake up from the drugged stupour of the system that has permeated even the Christian church (we shouldn't be surprised, it's a history that goes right back to Constantine, if not further). And in that insight alone, I reckon Russell Brand is on to something very important. But that's for another post...