Saturday, 25 June 2016

No, no, no, no, no... yes...

"A decisive result". "The people have spoken". "A victory for ordinary people over the establishment". "Democracy in action". "We must unite". "We must listen to what the people are saying"...

Well, in the words of Jim from 'The Vicar of Dibley', "No. No. No. No. No... Yes..."

No, 52% to 48% (even of 72% turnout) is not a decisive result. It is a narrow majority, with a very significant minority voting in the opposite direction. And so no, 'the people' have not spoken. If the vote says anything about 'the people', it is that 'the people' are deeply divided.

And no, this is no 'ordinary people vs establishment' victory. Many 'ordinary people' may be feeling happy, at least temporarily, that their vote has been one of the 17 million that 'won' in this particular referendum. And while it's true that a whole load of the rich, powerful 'establishment' were advocates for 'Remain' (including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, the IMF, a whole load of big business, alongside the rather different bed-fellows of economists and political scientists, church leaders and educators)... well, welcome to the 'post-establishment' world of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the like... Truly a revolution of the 'ordinary people'.

Which makes the 'democracy in action' point all the more interesting. Really? Democracy, the 'rule of the people'. The decision of a narrow majority to 'Leave' imposed on the almost-half-the-UK who voted to 'Remain' - is that 'democracy'? A decision shaped profoundly through appeals to gut feelings, through lies and misinformation, by the powerful forces of a couple of multi-millionaire newspaper moguls and their mates? A decision that has come at the end of a so-called 'debate' with very little light (facts, for example; policies and plans for the next stage, perhaps) and far too much heat (not to mention hate, division and suspicion), on both sides? And a 'debate', if we can call it that, that was largely conducted in a 'stage-managed' way in TV studios, and much less often, in any meaningful sense, in the pubs and clubs and village halls and churches and mosques and schools and the like, that was so impressive in the lead-up to the last Scottish independence referendum. If these last few weeks have shown us 'Great British democracy', then I would suggest it's profoundly broken (and I can't claim any moral high ground here - we might have organised a hustings in Hodge Hill before GE2015, but we didn't do anything before this momentous vote).

And then there are the calls to 'unite'. Calls not just from the victors, but from the outgoing Prime Minister and from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, among others. It's seductive language. Unity's a good thing, right? The decision's been made, we must pull together, rather than pull further apart. But it's cheap, far too cheap. It's rooted in a lack of critical examination of the false assumptions above. 'Democracy has done its thing, the people have spoken - so the minority should stop moaning that we didn't get the outcome we wanted, and unite behind the decision that has been made'.


'Stop moaning' can very easily become a repression of political dissent and protest, as well as a repression of the simple, human necessity of grief and lament after a shocking sense of loss. 'Unite' can be a very convenient call from those who continue to hold the reins of power to get behind them and their agenda - an agenda that goes far beyond 'Remain' or 'Leave', and that has a whole lot to do with a tiny minority preserving their own privilege, and grabbing further power, resources and control for themselves - not to mention further marginalising, disempowering, excluding and scapegoating of minorities who are already vulnerable and fearful: it is one thing to say that all who voted 'Leave' are racist (they're clearly not), but another to highlight the frightening increase in racist attacks (verbal, physical and, yes, murders) that people in the UK are experiencing as directly connected to the language of the 'Leave' campaign (the tiny steps from "we want our country back" to "pack your bags and go back to where you came from" that are already being witnessed).

What's also pretty clear is that we've not just woken up to a 'divided country'. Our country has been divided long before the EU referendum campaign kicked off - and not just on this issue. Just think how little traction language of 'the common good' seems to have in public debate. Geographically, we're divided: not just between the nations of the UK, but between North and South, between rural and urban, between London and everywhere else. Economically, we're divided: not just between 'the elite' and 'ordinary people' (the 1% and the 99%), but between house-owners and house-renters, between 'middle-class professionals' and 'working-class', between the 'just-about-OK' and the 'deeply-precarious', between employed and unemployed - both in terms of our ability to access and participate in something we call 'society', but also in the way media and politicians have framed our language and labels. Culturally, we're divided, between libertarians and authoritarians (as one perceptive bit of post-referendum analysis by the Fabian Society highlighted), between feminist, environmentally-concerned multiculturalists and those who still believe such trends are signs of unnecessary 'political correctness' (as one of Lord Ashcroft's pre-referendum polls showed with frightening clarity).

So what's the 'Yes', however qualified? We must listen. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the people who celebrated on Friday, and listen to the people who were disconsolate. Not speculate on what the result means, on why people voted like they did - that's not 'listening'. One of the great fallacies of democracy is that people 'speak' through the ballot box. People don't 'speak'. They put a cross in a box - in one of only two boxes, on this occasion. That's not 'speaking'. So let's go and listen to what people are actually saying. And let's not just listen to the surface conversations. Let's dig deeper. Let's listen for the fears, anxieties and insecurities underneath. Let's listen to the best hopes, ideals, longings underneath. Let's listen for difference as well as for agreement. Let's listen, particularly, to those who are articulating experiences very different to our own. Let's listen in places where we are uncomfortable, where we are the strangers, the out-of-place. Let's listen, especially, to those whose voices are less-heard, muffled, indistinct, silenced, incoherent, faltering. Let's listen, to help them be heard, help them speak things for the first time, things they've never dared say before, help them find some coherence amid fragmentation and fragility. And by listening to people, let's help them (and us) listen to each other.

The political theorist Albert Hirschmann talks about 'exit', 'voice' and 'loyalty' as the three strategies for dealing with conflict. We can 'pull together' (loyalty), we can speak up (voice), or we can get out (exit). There's been plenty of focus on all three of these in the last few weeks, and no doubt much more to come in the weeks and months that follow. But they're not the full story. Because 'speaking up' without learning to listen to others just increases the volume, the cacophony. And 'loyalty or exit' doesn't account for the possibility of travelling - physically moving, and opening ourselves to be changed by encounters with people in different locations, geographical, economic, cultural, political, to our own - a 'to and fro' where we learn both to be more hospitable on 'our turf' but also take the risk of being strangers and guests in other people's territory.

Some of us this might be picked up in the Archbishops' post-referendum language of 'reconciliation' - but the danger is that we seek reconciliation too cheaply. 'Being with' our neighbours who differ from us is no easy process, no easy achievement. There's a whole load of divesting ourselves of power, of many of our defences; a whole load of patience beyond our usual busyness; a whole load of courageous 'leaning towards' others whose surface views we might dislike, even sometimes find viscerally disgusting; a whole load of resistance and blocking of those power-strategies (deployed both by the obviously powerful, and the relatively powerless) that seek to close down conversation, hide behind parroted cliches, shout louder, deflect responsibility, or retreat into a 'benumbment' that will not listen to anything anyone says because it's all become overwhelming. There will also need to be an acceptance that harmony, unity, are illusory and unhelpful goals. The best we can seek - and it is truly the best - is creative tensions, constantly reanimated tensions between social goods that resist any easy reconciliation.

So I want to say No today. No. No. No. No. But also, tentatively, the beginnings of a Yes...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Let's call the whole thing off

If - as very occasionally happens - a discussion at one of my Church Council meetings has ended up producing rather more heat than light, rather more emotion (anger? frustration? incomprehension?) than clarity of purpose, rather more introspection than a sense of wisdom being received and discerned... then the last thing I think of suggesting is that we take a vote. Much more likely is that we agree to go away, sleep on it, reflect, pray, talk together some more (in one-to-ones and small groups as well as in the formal confines of a Council meeting), try and listen to each other better... and then re-convene to see where all that has got us to. Voting 'in the heat of the moment' is almost always going to give some a brief sense of the elation of victory, give others over to a bitter sense of disenfranchisement, and all of us wounds that are likely to run deep, and last for a long time. The process of seeking healing for those wounds is almost always longer, more painful, than that process of 'active pausing' would have been.

I don't feel like I have much wisdom to share in this week of a big, big decision in the history of the UK. But I'm increasingly passionate in one plea.

To those of my friends, neighbours and sister- and brother-citizens who are thinking of voting 'Leave' this week: please don't.

Not because I think there are no credible, thought-through arguments for why 'Leave' would be better for the UK (although I would suggest the weight of credible, thought-through arguments does seem to be tipping rather heavily towards 'Remain').

Not because I think everyone who wants to vote 'Leave' is xenophobic, or racist, or a 'little Englander' with no broader view of the world (although there do seem to be quite a few in those camps).

Not because I have any clear sense of what the future holds if the UK votes in either direction.

But for one reason that I would suggest trumps (pardon the rather untimely word) any others. Because the 'debate' in the lead-up to this vote has been crap. Utterly, appallingly crap. Angry, and fear-mongering, and divisive, and full of lies and half-truths and claims entirely lacking in evidence. On both sides. And so a decision this week to dramatically change the status quo (to 'leave the EU', whatever that will even mean in practice) that is made in the midst of all of this - whether that decision is 51% to 49% or 99% to 1% - will quite certainly open wounds not just across the continent of Europe, but within the UK itself: deep, divisive, open wounds that will take many, many years to find any kind of healing. A deep sense of bitterness, blame, and resentment - if not palpable fear.

So if you think 'Leaving' is the right thing to do, let's decide it properly, and with a good dose of British caution and care thrown in for good measure. Let's agree to put it off for a bit. Let's give ourselves a couple of years to do some proper research, some proper discussion, some proper listening to each other. Let's try and capture a bit of what they had in Scotland before their independence referendum in 2014: a genuinely grassroots conversation about 'what kind of country we want to be', that happened in pubs and village halls and schools and shops and churches and mosques and around kitchen tables. Let's make a decision that we can all say we've genuinely had a part in deliberating and discussing - not one made by gut responses shaped by the rich and powerful. Let's make sure the conversation includes a much clearer sense of what we want 'Leave' to mean - and, indeed, what we want 'Remain' to mean. We could even try and take it beyond the crude and crazy binary 'In or Out' of this Thursday's ballot papers.

So if you really, passionately want to 'Leave' - let's get there in a decent, careful, British kind of way. Let's give ourselves a bit more time. Let's 'keep calm', 'have a cup of tea' and talk it through properly. Because this week's no week to make such a crucial decision.

Remind me who hates whom, again?

Moments after I pressed 'post', late last Thursday afternoon, I realised what I'd done. I realised I'd done just what I can't stand other people doing at moments like these: I had linked my lament at a horrific loss of life (the murder of Jo Cox) with my political prejudices (that Nigel Farage's latest poster was blatantly racist); I was, at worst (however unconsciously), 'using' this tragedy - this personal tragedy of the death of one woman, a wife, mother, daughter - to confirm what I already believed and had been saying about where our society is going wrong. I was called out on it by a good friend, who I'm glad is able to say such things to me, and I was sorry, genuinely.

And yet. All murders are political. They are never simply 'random acts'. They have histories, they are entwined in relationships. If not directly between perpetrator and victim, at the very least relationships and histories that have shaped a perpetrator, brought them to this moment of senselessness.

And perhaps senselessness itself is the wrong word, misrepresents: because although we dearly long (with St Augustine) to consign evil to the non-realm of meaninglessness, to label all acts of violence senseless is to conceal the meanings, however murky, that their perpetrators believe them to have. And those beliefs are themselves the products of meanings not merely fabricated by isolated individuals, but also absorbed by them: from messages they have received, consumed, from others; from family, or neighbours, or school, or prison, or religion, or the internet, or politicians, or the media, or corporate marketing machines, or...

We act because an action 'makes sense', even just for a moment, within the meaning-games we have absorbed, consumed, inhabited - as well as constructed for ourselves.

And so, when we try to 'make sense' of the most horrific of actions, we need to look to the meaning-games within which the actions, and the actors, are situated.

And therein lies the great danger for all of us. How quickly we 'join the dots', make the connections, add 2 and 2 and make... well, is it 4? Or is it 5?

The man who shot Jo Cox shouted 'Britain First' before shooting her, and was a vocal supporter of that far-right group, it seems. The man who shot dead 49 people in the Orlando night club was a Muslim, we're told. But the former, we're also told, had a history of mental health struggles. The latter, we're also told, was revolted at a gay couple kissing. Which dots do we join? Which connections do we make?

Every human being, one of my pastoral theology lecturers once pointed out, is in some ways like all other human beings; in some ways like some other human beings; and in some ways utterly unique. But in what ways? And how do we know?

Let's get some stuff straight. In a manner of speaking. Some people who call themselves 'Muslim' are violent, some are homophobic. There are also plenty of violent, homophobic self-declared 'Christians', and violent, homophobic atheists. But there are also - and I know some of them and am blessed to be able to call them family, dear friends, neighbours - many, many peace-loving Muslims, Christians and atheists who are either LGBTQ themselves, or love and ally themselves with those who are. And what's more, can point to places from within their own traditions of belief and practice which firmly ground those loves and solidarities. The labels of faith affiliation are big, broad labels - to the point that we can look at each other across the breadth within a faith tradition and barely recognise a shared faith. Many is the time I've looked at the words or actions of others who call themselves 'Christians' and responded with horror, disgust, wanting to put as much distance as I can between their faith and my own.

Let's try another one. Some people who have long-term mental health struggles are violent, and some have extremist, fascist views. There are also, quite obviously, are many, many people who have long-term mental health struggles who are passionately, painstakingly committed to working for a peaceful, just world for all. Some of these, again, I am fortunate enough to call family, dear friends, and neighbours. Again, the label is so, so broad - that blanket pronouncements about 'how we should respond to people with mental health problems' might, for one person, be entirely appropriate, and for another, be utterly, destructively wrong.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - about being Muslim, Christian, atheist or struggling with your mental health, that makes you inherently more violent, homophobic, or fascist than anyone else.


If you participate in meaning-games (in the most serious sense) that portray some human beings (whether because of their gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality, or statelessness, or disability, or state of mental health, or low level of income, or way of dressing) as less valuable, less worthy of respect or reverence, less 'human' - then you are doing your little bit to legitimise fear, hatred, and violence against such people. If you laugh at the jokes, or tell them, if you write the news headlines, or buy them, if you create the images, or share them on social media, if you use the words, preach the theology, shore up the institution, buy the products, or 'merely' stay quiet when you witness any of this going on around you and let it go unchallenged - then you are part of the problem, you have your own share in the violence, the hatred me the fear-mongering.

And of course, 'you' means 'me'. I am part of the problem. My hands are not spotless, my words innocent, my actions pure. I am complicit in the fearful, hate-full, violent dynamics of our world. I cannot stand blameless lay 'outside' and point unambiguously to those 'others' whose fault it all is. This, simply, is what we Christians call 'original sin'. None of us can escape it. It touches us all.

The question is what we do with it. Do we jump into it with both feet and hate with the worst of them? Do we despair of the whole damned world and turn our back on it all? Or do we do our little bit of throwing beached starfish back into the life-giving water, loving those we can love, challenging those we can challenge, repenting where we can repent, learning where we can learn, befriending where we can befriend, forgiving where we can forgive, hoping where we can hope, that - against all the odds - love, ultimately, wins?

On the Sunday after the Orlando shootings, after Jo Cox's murder, I led a couple of services in Hodge Hill, as I do most Sundays. In one sense, we did something 'special'. We began the main morning service by gathering around an altar draped in rainbow fabrics, each of us holding in our hands a small piece of one edge. We lit a single candle in the middle. We said short prayers, we sung, we kept silence, we held hands. But in another sense, we Christians in Hodge Hill did last Sunday what we do every Sunday (and other days too): we gathered together the fragments of our lives and our world as it has touched us over the preceding days; we offered to God our penitence for our part in the brokenness of our world, the hatred and division which we know is even within our own hearts - and opened ourselves afresh to God's healing and forgiving love; we prayed in solidarity with the suffering and the bereaved, for healing and peace and justice; we joined consciously with that 'great cloud of witnesses' of those who have gone before us (sometimes dying violent deaths) in witnessing to God's kingdom of life and love and wholeness, longing for that kingdom to come 'on earth as in heaven'; and then we re-committed ourselves to turning that longing into a reality in our daily lives. Nothing unusual in any of that - but extraordinary nevertheless.

A good friend who is a chaplain at Warwick University shared with me another story of simple, faith-full human responses to last week's tragedies, in some ways much more extraordinary but no more 'superhuman' than our response in Hodge Hill:

"On Thursday night the societies at Warwick organised a vigil for the Orlando shooting; over a hundred went.  It was led by Pride but all sorts got involved, including one of our orchestral societies who played.  Faith societies were visibly present.  Afterwards, one of the Christian societies walked back to the chaplaincy with Pride members to light candles with those who wanted to, and the Muslim attendees went back to the prayer hall for prayers and to prepare food.  Later,  people from all the groups that night gathered at the Islamic prayer hall to break the fast together.  There were all sorts of blurred lines between the 'liberation' and 'faith' societies as we sat on the floor and ate curry together; people whose identities are complex and unique.  I joined just for the food but what I saw in my snapshot of the evening filled me with hope.  On Friday night, students from a Christian group came to mine to eat and pray - what they had taken part in the night before had been transformative for them.  They’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives."

The words and actions we consume, in which we participate, form us and transform us. No simple labels will ever do them much justice, tell us much about their content and character - or ours. Our challenge, as human beings, and as societies, is discerning (literally, teasing out) the multiplicity of different meaning-games that form us - and finding ways of nurturing those which are good, and life-giving, and disentangling ourselves from those which are unhealthy, and destructive, to ourselves as well as to others. We might call that process of discerning, disentangling and nurturing 'faith'. We might call it 'politics'. I think it's probably both, and more. But I know, because I have witnessed it, that when it is done carefully, painstakingly, across differences and divides, and drenched in love, then it has the power to cast out fear.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

'Thinking afresh about welfare'? Really?!

The Church of England's House of Bishops has just published a discussion paper attempting to 'think afresh about welfare'. It has three aims: "to help formulate a considered response to the challenges facing the country's welfare systems today", "to develop a narrative" about the purposes of welfare, and "to inspire hearts as well as minds in pursuit of the people's welfare". At its heart is a relatively simple, four-stage argument: vital to our welfare (or wellbeing) is interdependence and community; we live in a world where such interdependence has broken down; the welfare system should help tackle this problem; and the churches are well-placed to help. Unfortunately, any helpful insights in the paper are overwhelmed by (at least) three fatally flawed assumptions: about work, about politics, and about 'solutions'.

Firstly, the paper assumes that 'work' is by its very nature a social good: 'a primary source of companionship and a remedy for isolation', 'productive' and 'socially useful'. On that basis, while 'welfare systems' should 'strengthen people's ties to their locality and not undermine them', it is quite acceptable to expect people to move locality 'to take up opportunities for work' ('on your bike', we might say). Work thus trumps any other social good, passing over the reality for so many people that work is temporary or short-term, alienating and unfulfilling, and radically 'desocialized' (as sociologist Loic Wacquant puts it), such that low-income work environments are increasingly designed to isolate workers from each other, to prevent them from forming meaningful bonds of solidarity.

The paper's second problematic assumption lies in its view of politics. It acknowledges that 'welfare cuts are a political choice', but goes straight on to suggest that they 'may be the only politically possible alternative to high levels of debt'. Politics may well be 'the art of the possible', but this paper does not deserve to be dignified with any pretence to Christian theology if it rests content with what currently appears 'politically possible'. Where is its prophetic voice to seek to change the terms of the political conversation? Nowhere, it seems, beyond a thinly-evidenced suggestion that it is our 'loss of connection' that is responsible for 'the burden on the state' (of the welfare bill) becoming 'unsustainable', 'outstripping the willingness of the people as a whole to pay for it'. Nowhere does the paper question the vested interests of those who would perpetuate this particular economic narrative, or alternative narratives that might highlight where wealth has in fact been concentrated in recent years.

The final fatal flaw with this paper is in its proposals for moving forwards. It does not consider tackling the desocializing forces of 'the economy' and the workplace. It pays scant attention to the need of the affluent and the comfortable for 'interdependence' and 'mutuality', focusing only on their necessities for the poor. And most troubling, it ties itself in knots trying to argue, on the one hand, that the 'welfare system' out to 'promote mutuality and challenge isolation', and 'address issues of character', and also, on the other hand, that such issues can only be addressed by neighbourhoods, and communities like, guess what, the church. While I agree unequivocally with the latter point (systems cannot love, or nurture love, almost by definition), the barely-hidden subtext of this paper is that 'voluntary bodies' (like churches) need to be enabled to 'bid competitively' (against the unloving but seemingly more 'efficient' private sector) to deliver welfare provision. It doesn't quite say as much, but the suggestion of using food banks as 'one-stop-shops' for state-sponsors welfare is implied, thickly, between the lines.

When will the church renounce the temptation to position itself as the state's ideal 'service provider', while abdicating its prophetic calling to expose our idolatries (of 'the economy', work, and the politically expedient, to name but three)? Why can our ecclesial imagination not even stretch as far as the idea of the Universal Basic Income, already a serious political concept in a growing number of countries - one way of 'decoupling' meaningful, productive, interdependent work from the apparent necessity of wage labour, which might just possibly liberate people for voluntary action in their communities and neighbourhoods? Why, furthermore, must we buy the lie of 'scarce resources', when there is wealth in the hands of a few that, invested in serious community-building, could transform our society? Why are we not asking serious questions about the moral failings of the rich, and urging the state to incentivise their moves towards interdependence and community within our wider society? If this paper is 'thinking afresh', then the Church of England has truly run out of ideas.