Monday, 30 July 2018

CofE profits from Land Warfare? #DisarmChurchHouse

Church House, Westminster, the HQ of the Church of England, has for some years now been hosting the annual Land Warfare Conference, sponsored by various arms companies, including Lockheed Martin. Details of the conference can be found on the Fellowship of Reconciliation's page here.

This year Ven Martin Gorick, the Archdeacon of Oxford, attended the AGM of The Corporation (which runs Church House), and asked a question: ‘Is it ethical for the Church to profit from Land Warfare?’ He was told that the current policy had been approved by Lambeth Palace, that there was no evidence of widespread concern about it, and that it was ‘no different from a church hall hosting a scout group who were sponsored by BAE Systems'. It seems quite a few of us beg to differ. We've been writing to the CEO of Church House, Mr Chris Palmer. Here's my letter:

Dear Mr Palmer,
(cc: Lambeth Palace)

I imagine your email inbox will be somewhat inundated at the moment, so please forgive me for adding one more email to it.

I am writing regarding the Land Warfare conference that is hosted annually at Church House. In conversation with The Ven Martin Gorick, Archdeacon of Oxford, who attended The Corporation's AGM last week, I understand that (1) you see the Land Warfare conference as a positive booking in the conference centre diary, (2) you have said that on this specific booking Lambeth Palace have been consulted and have given their approval, and (3) you believe there is no evidence of widespread concern about this booking.

As I'm sure you're aware, there is a history of opposition to this, and similar bookings at Church House, including annual protests led by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There have also, in more recent months, been questions raised at General Synod, as well as the Archdeacon of Oxford's question at The Corporation's AGM. Most recently, there has been an open letter, published in the Church Times, gaining at least 60 signatories. The contents of your Inbox over the last week will hopefully add significantly to the "evidence of widespread concern" that you have, up until now, not been aware of.

I want here to make just three points. The first is about the links - both legal and symbolic - between The Corporation and the Church of England. The second is about the principle of the CofE supporting warfare conferences. And the third is a pragmatic suggestion about balancing income to Church House and PR damage.

So firstly, it has at times been claimed that the link between The Corporation and the Church of England is distant - that the latter has little influence on, or responsibility for, the former, and thus decisions made by the former are largely autonomous of, and irrelevant to, the latter. Legally, the stated charitable purpose of The Corporation is that the buildings are "for use or letting … for any purpose connected with the Church of England", and all 467 members of the Church of England's General Synod are its Members. Symbolically, Church House is very obviously the "headquarters" of the Church of England, and thus even if the two organisations were legally entirely separate (which they are not), anything that happens at Church House looks very clearly like it is being hosted by - and, by extension, with the approval of - the Church of England.

Secondly, then, the question of the CofE supporting - or being seen to support - a Land Warfare conference. The Archbishop of Canterbury has repeatedly stated that the heart of the Christian gospel "is reconciliation". Warfare is, without needing to stretch any semantics, the precise opposite of reconciliation - and thus antithetical to the heart of the Christian gospel. To be sure, there is a long and respectable "just war" tradition within Christianity, but even that will only go so far as acknowledging that war can, in certain limited ways, be a "necessary evil" - never a "good". The Church of England's own ethical investment policy states that "[t]he NIBs do not invest in any company involved in indiscriminate weaponry.  Moreover they do not invest in companies involved in conventional weapons if their strategic military supplies exceed 10% of turnover." At least one of the sponsors of the Land Warfare conference, Lockheed Martin, would quite obviously fall under this exclusion were this an investment. For the Church to take money from Lockheed Martin, however indirectly, is surely just as unethical by its own standards. Where it is obvious that companies like Lockheed Martin have been supplying weapons used to kill and maim civilians in Yemen, for example, this is surely a "no-brainer" for the Church of England. How can we possibly profit from companies that have a vested interest in the death of civilians?

Thirdly, I want simply to pragmatically suggest that, however much The Corporation, or the Church of England more widely, is in need of sources of revenue, this is not the way to find it. There is a movement growing in strength and voice to oppose this ongoing booking, and it will, I have no doubt, continue to draw in increasing numbers of clergy and laity to attend and ask questions at The Corporation's AGM, to communicate with members of The Corporation's Council, to ask questions and to propose motions at General Synod, to talk with the press, and to seek maximum attention for its protests outside Church House if this conference is held again. The Church of England is going through a sorry patch exposing its structural failures in public - it would be a desperate shame, in the most specific sense of that word, if this conference continued to expose to the public an institutional prioritising of lucrative income, however unethical, over its witness to the good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I look forward to response in due course, and to hearing that The Corporation will reconsider its position on this issue.

Warmest wishes,

Revd Dr Al Barrett

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Tending, (At)tending, (Ex)tending...

This is a transcript of my talk at the annual conference of the (Roman Catholic) National Justice & Peace Network, 2018. The conference theme was taken from the beautiful Irish proverb: “In the shelter of each other, the people live”.
If you can bear it (!), you can watch / listen to this talk on YouTube - or just read the text here!

“Can anybody hear me?”:
Christian discipleship in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower

I want to spend the next little while attending to some of our edges as a society, and exploring how we might inhabit them as Christians.

At the edge of an estate, at the edge of the city of Birmingham, underneath the concrete pillars of the M6, lies a place that we locally call the wasteland. Houses were built on it in the ‘60s, but it was a flood-plain, and they were rapidly sinking into the mud. It was cleared quite quickly, and then left, abandoned – much like the residents of the estate themselves. And it was in that wasteland a few years ago, on a snowy Palm Sunday, that we crucified Jesus. Our first Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play ended in the wasteland, with the scene of crucifixion and the cry of godforsakenness. And after the silence came some song. The song was the words of Maya Angelou set to music:

“Now did you want to see me broken
Bowed head and lowered eyes
Shoulders fallen down like tear drops
Weakened by my soulful cries

Does my confidence upset you
Don’t you take it awful hard
Cause I walk like I’ve got a diamond mine
Breakin’ up in my front yard

So you may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
And I’ll rise... I’ll rise... I’ll rise...

Out of the shacks of history’s shame
Up from a past rooted in pain
I’ll rise... I’ll rise... I’ll rise...”

As the echoes of the singing resonated around the wasteland, the words of the song resonated with the stories of my neighbours. Experiences of abandonment, of being overlooked, and forgotten, and done-to and let down. But also of a defiant hope that would not die, and instead insistently claimed it would rise, and rise, and rise again.

Brexit – and precarious cliff-edges

We are living in times of profound fragmentation. In the United Kingdom, the referendum on withdrawing from the EU divided the country between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ (with a wafer-thin majority to the former), but it also exposed divisions between people from different generations, different ethnic backgrounds, and different socio-economic classes. Politicians’ claims that ‘the people have spoken’ immediately begged the question, ‘which people are you listening to?’ While Leave voters were, overall, more likely to come from poorer than more affluent backgrounds, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ might well have been more decisive for Leave than the ‘left out’ (Rosenbaum 2017; Antonucci et al 2017), and even clearer was the evidence that the Leave vote was overwhelmingly older, and more white, than the vote for Remain.

Waking on the morning after, I remember feeling shocked, but also unsurprised. Hodge Hill, our ward, was split just like the country – 52% Leave, 48% Remain. Many of my neighbours (especially my Muslim neighbours) were feeling more unsafe, less at home that morning; and yet many of my neighbours were also feeling happy & hopeful, especially white working-class folk locally, who felt their voice had been heard, for a change.

Further afield, and in the days and weeks after, we saw across the country more overt racism and attacks, and at the same time cosmopolitan middle-class people with accents like mine blaming ‘white working-class’ people, for voting Leave, for their anti-immigration attitudes, for their racism.

And underneath all of this, there were deeper issues emerging. An identity issue – what the postcolonial scholar Paul Gilroy calls a ‘post-imperial melancholia’, summed up in the football chant “2 world wars and one world cup, doo dah” (and yes, it is still only one!). Gilroy describes it as an ‘inability to face, never mind actually mourn’ the ‘profound change … that followed the end of the Empire’, the ‘loss of imperial prestige’, and ‘the shock and anxiety that followed from a loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture’ (Gilroy 2004:98). Lurking under this melancholia, Gilroy goes on to argue, is a further inability to ‘work through’ the feelings of ‘discomfort, shame, and perplexity’ at the horrors of that imperial history itself, and its white supremacist ideology (Gilroy 2004:98, 102; cf also Reddie 2017).

But this was as much (if not more) a middle- and upper-class issue as a working-class issue. There were middle-class people blaming ‘white working class’ people for Brexit, or for racism, but that conveniently diverted us from the middle- and upper-class racism behind the Brexit campaign, and entrenched, and widening, class divides themselves – structural inequalities – effects not just of current austerity policies, but also the longer-term legacy of ‘Thatcherism, deindustrialization [and] the rise of the super-rich’.

And especially in areas like mine, the lack or loss of employment (or insecure, zero-hours contracts); poor quality, overcrowded and inadequately available housing; unyielding and punitive welfare regimes; and variable and uncertain access to food & healthcare; coupled with a lack or loss of voice in politics – all made a perfect storm.

And we might use the word precarity to describe it: a condition of uncertainty, insecurity that affects our whole livelihood. Feeling like you’re on a cliff edge, that at any time you could fall off. And the truth is that in our society that precarity is unequally distributed. Many people have to deal with a hell of a lot more precarity than others. In my bit of the West Midlands, Jaguar LandRover have warned that if Brexit goes ahead, they could pull out of the UK. Thousands and thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly, will be affected.

Grenfell tower – and our tragic disconnection

And then, in the early hours of 14th June 2017, a 24-storey tower block in west London caught fire. The fire spread with terrifying speed and ferocity, and despite a massive fire-fighting operation, 71 people lost their lives. The victims came from many different nationalities, many different backgrounds, but they were almost all poor. The helpers came almost immediately: Muslims coming back from prayers after breaking the fast in the middle of the night; and not long after, Christians at local churches throwing open the doors, offering hospitality, food and water, spaces to lament and to pray… and in the days and weeks after, brokering gatherings with politicians, and beginning to call for justice.

In the days that followed the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we discovered that residents of the Tower, members of the Grenfell Action Group, had been issuing repeated warnings for several years before, that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord . . . and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants’ (Grenfell Action Group 2016).

And then slowly we discovered that the cladding was ‘insulation’ not from the cold, not from fire (in fact quite the opposite), but visually insulating rich neighbours in North Kensington from the poor housing and its occupants around them. It was a symptom of a wider disconnection. Why had the Grenfell Action Group’s warnings not been heeded? Why had their voices not been heard? In a lecture two months after the fire, journalist Jon Snow articulated the profound and dangerous ‘disconnect’ between those who are part of ‘the elite’ (within which he includes himself and his journalist colleagues), and ‘the lives, concerns, and needs of those who are not’:

“Amid the demonstrations around the tower after the fire there were cries of “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?” Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story? . . . We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on amid the combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.”

Jon Snow’s remarks bear more than a passing resonance with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si:

“…many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. … Their lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.”

For Snow, from a profession of communicators, the Grenfell tragedy has brought the issue of disconnection into sharp focus. Rather than seeing their role as simply ‘communicating to’ the wider population, journalists – as part of what Snow calls the ‘narrow elite’ – should be bridging divides of class and background to get to know their audience – not as two-dimensional stereotypes, as victims or villains, but in all their three-dimensional complexity as fellow human beings. ‘So casually written off as nameless migrants, scroungers, and the rest,’ Snow remarks, ‘actually, and it should be no shock to us, the Tower was full of talent’ (Snow 2017). So my question for us is this: how might he and fellow journalists – how might all of us here in this room? How might the Church as the body of Christ stretching from North Kensington to Swanwick and far beyond? – have come to truly see the talent of the Tower’s residents, how might we have thoroughly heard their voices, in those years before the devastating fire – the years of what we might call ‘ordinary time’ – before Grenfell Tower became tragic headline news?

Poverty and edges of marginalization and expulsion

This question hits the ground for me in the Firs & Bromford estate where I live and work. That Passion Play, that story of abandonment – and yet in a place that some of us were just beginning to discover a few years ago was ‘full of talent’. In the left of the picture, the Roman centurion, is a man called Phil. Phil was a few years ago one of our ‘unsung heroes’ in Hodge Hill. We found him because some of his neighbours had nominated him as someone who had made a contribution to our neighbourhood. And when we gathered together our unsung heroes, we asked them, “if you could find a couple of people to join you, what would you start in your neighbourhood, what would you give a go?”. And Phil said “I want to start a theatre group”. The Bromford Theatre Group – it did its first Christmas panto a few months before the first Community Passion Play, that Phil sat down and dictated to me in my front room. A different story of our estate was beginning to be told.

Why does this matter? The Church Urban Fund has developed something it calls the ‘web of poverty’. It talks about not just poverty of resources, but also poverty of relationships, and poverty of identity – the kind of stories that are told about us, the kind of stories we absorb and believe and live out for ourselves, because others have said this is how we are.

It’s the kind of poverty that brings us to a different kind of edge. Less a cliff-edge, and more the edge of what counts as “normal”, what counts as “mainstream”. Pushed to the edge, we experience blame, demonization, marginalization and even expulsion.

The Scottish writer Alastair McIntosh reminds us that poverty is “structural, being systemic to the distribution of power, resources and educational opportunities in society. Second, it is a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little… [and] sustained by blindness to the full humanity of one another… a pathology of the rich and not just a deficit of the poor.” (Alastair McIntosh, Poverty Truth Commission commissioner)

And its within a wider Wester society that the philosopher of language Gemma Corradi Fiumara calls our ‘non-listening culture’: “the logos we inhabit is ‘halved’ … we know how to speak but have forgotten how to listen’. Our ‘non-listening culture … divides itself into separate discourses, which are free from the desire or obligation to listen to others’, and where ‘powerful’ discourses ‘seek to expand [their] territory through the silencing of others’ (and defining what counts as ‘truth’). And in such a culture, a common temptation is to what Fiumara names ‘benumbment’: the ‘refusal to listen or be listened to, as a means of defending one’s own discursive space against the predatory invasion of other discourses’.

Two common Christian responses: charity and advocacy

In that context, I want to suggest that there are two common Christian responses that both fall short.

The first is the response of charity – of ‘giving to’. It can reduce suffering, it can sometimes save lives, yes. But it treats people as individuals – and it keeps their ‘problems’ individualised too. It doesn’t address the causes that keep people in poverty, that keep pushing people to the edges and off the edges (cf Dom Helder Camara).

And so a second response is advocacy – ‘speaking for’. Public statements, protest, lobbying, organizing & marching in the streets… I took my 10-year-old down to London last Friday – his teachers were proud he took a day off school! It’s concerned with the causes, and not just the symptoms. It’s rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible. And yet, ‘too many advocates assume that they are somehow above or unaffected by the problem, merely seeking to help others who are less fortunate… the privileged supporting the underprivileged…’ (Rieger 2018).

And within both charity and advocacy I think we have an imagination of a particular kind of flow going on: from God, through the church, into the world. The church receives something from God to give to those needy outside it. We’re sent to serve, to wash feet, to grow the kingdom. We’re fed in the eucharist to feed others.

The words of Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now
but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes
with which he looks
with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”

Or in more evangelical language, and found on wrist-bands for many years (although I think they’re fading in popularity now), ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ At one end of the axis, we imagine that we are the ones that are Christ to others. Or at the other end of the axis we might cite Matthew 25, and imagine Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked – in the needy, facing us with open, empty hands.

And all of that is good, but it can be seductive.

Temptations in the wasteland

I want us to think for a minute about the story of the temptations in the wilderness. Journey with me, with Jesus, into the desert. The temptations raise the question, “who are you?” Remember Jesus has just been baptised. He’s just heard the voice of God ringing in his ears, “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. And now, he’s slung into the desert, and the tempter says to him, “if you are… if you are the Son of God…” And that identity crisis is one that afflicts the Church today as well, and the temptations are similar.
The first is to what Bishop John V Taylor of the Church Mission Society [in his book The Christlike God] called “the power of the provider”. We hear language around us in Christian circles around the “golden opportunities” of the state withdrawing, of the invitation to the Church to “fill the gaps”. Providing for our neighbours is not a bad thing – but it construes our neighbour as lacking. And it can make us feel good, and useful and valuable, to provide for those who need – and that can be seductive.
The “power of the performer” is one that certainly in my denomination, the Church of England, where all the graphs are going in the wrong direction and the numbers and the money seem to be leeching away – the power of the performer can be tempting. “We must do something! We must demonstrate our impact. People should see what we’re doing, and maybe they’ll change their minds about us!” It can be seductive, and it construes our neighbour as a spectator to our performance, as a consumer of our product.
And lastly, the third temptation is to the “power of the possessor”. We hear talk of the importance of the church having “a place at the table”, of “the Christian voice being heard”, of remembering “the Christian heritage” of our society and “the Christian values” which underly things. And all of that is valid, maybe, but again, it’s the seduction of being in charge, of being in control of “our project”, “our activity”, “our justice movement”. And at its worst it construes our neighbour as being the one possessed, controlled.

(I’m sorry, this is going to get worse before it gets better, but I promise, it’ll end on a high!)

I’ve found over the last couple of years that there are, in the States particularly, a small but growing number of people who call themselves ‘critical white theologians’. White Christians who are beginning to be conscious of their whiteness and the damage that uncritical whiteness can inflict. Jennifer Harvey is one of them, and I want you, having seen that axis of where we put Jesus, to listen to these words:

“It just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white racialization. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorized in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalized, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. ... Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.” (Jennifer Harvey, ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, 2012)

I am thankful to Donald Trump for just one thing. That he has highlighted, beyond reasonable doubt, that we live within white supremacist structures. In our society here in the UK as much within the United States.

But… how might these words be if we also translate them into the language of gender?

“Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a man, whose life is embedded within patriarchal structures should be doing.”

And for good measure – and I can say this, as someone who is white, male and middle-class…

“simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a middle-class Christian, whose life is embedded within unjust economic structures should be doing.”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I’ve found it helpful again, in recent times, to come up against the definition of what I suspect will be used more and more in the next few years as a helpful lens: white fragility. Again, it comes from North America but I think it applies to us too.

“White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” (Robin DiAngelo, ‘White Fragility’, 2011)

I think those of us in the room who are white may well recognise some of those descriptions, as something we don’t want to do, but something inside us does automatically. And I think again, we can probably translate quite easily into the language of gender, and the language of class. That defensiveness that those of us who are comfortable with privilege find welling up inside us when challenged.

So what do we do with the habits and seductions of privilege, with our fragile but fiercely defended identities? I think we need to go back to the wasteland, back to the wilderness, and remember that at the end of the temptations story there were angels, and Jesus let them minister to him.

A third response: ‘deep solidarity’, listening and being interrupted

And so, after charity and advocacy, I want to suggest (with Joerg Rieger) a third response, one of deep solidarity, one of ‘standing with’, ‘living with’… “Deep solidarity … describes a situation where the 99% of us who have to work for a living develop some understanding that we are in the same boat. … Deep solidarity not only thrives on differences, it also brings to light otherwise hidden privileges and helps deconstruct them. … as we [develop power by] put[ting] our differences to [productive] use, we begin to realise that those who are forced to endure the greatest pressures might have the most valuable lessons to teach [us].”

So how do we do it? I think those of us in positions of multiple privilege need to learn to let go of our ‘centralness’, and move to the edges, perhaps literally, physically. We need to learn to resist those temptations – the power of the provider, the performer, the possessor. We need to learn to embrace real, intimate, mutual relationships, where we become open to challenge, learning and transformation.

That means learning to listen. Otto Scharmer suggests that there are four levels of listening, and often we don’t get to the fourth. The first is, well, just listening to hear what we were expecting to hear. The second is to hear and maybe noticing something that’s interesting, and maybe different to what we’ve heard before, to what we were expecting. The third is listening to inhabit the shoes of the other. But the fourth level, what he calls generative listening, is a listening that enables something genuine new to emerge. A ‘hearing to speech’.

  ‘Hearing to speech is political

  Hearing to speech is never one-sided. Once a person is heard to speech, she becomes a hearing person.

  Speaking first to be heard is power-over. Hearing to bring forth speech is empowering’

                                                (Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home)

(I’m sorry the way this talk works that doesn’t quite work in practice!)

Jim Perkinson, another critical white theologian, suggests that those of us who are white need an ‘exorcism’, a ‘shaking of our being to the core’ which we can’t do on our own. We have to be open to a ‘grace from without’, we have to be ‘dis-located’, pushed to the edges so that we can learn from others.

Like Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman. At the very edges of his travelling, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a women challenges him and he says No and she will not give up. ‘Yes, but…’ she says. And for her ‘Yes, but’ Jesus is changed and turned around – a metanoia goes on. He heads back home, different. His mission expanded.
Jennifer Harvey suggests, that again, those of us who are white, maybe need to let go of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, and find ourselves on the other end of the finger of the black Christ who points and denounces, and invites us to work out ways of becoming ‘race- and class-traitors’, choosing the path of radical conversion, embodied in humility, repentance and reparation. Instead we should ask, she says, ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’

In Hodge Hill Church a couple of years ago, Phil and a couple of members of Bromford Theatre Group came and performed on Remembrance Sunday. It was profoundly uncomfortable for some in the church because the performance reminded us of the class divides of war. It unsettled the cosy nationalism that glosses over those divisions. It refused a ‘glory story’, to look tragedy squarely in the face.

And Phil in that Passion Play, playing the Roman centurion, asked us as the crowd, “Is this the Son of God? This man who turned over the tables in the temple, who turned the other cheek, who forgives his persecutors, is this the Son of God?” Phil asked us. It was a challenge to us, the Christians there, as much as to anyone else.

‘Tabling’: finding eucharistic spaces in our neighbourhoods
Later on in Mark’s gospel, 7 chapters after the Syro-Phoenician woman, another unknown woman breaks into the gathering where Jesus is, interrupts the flow of proceedings and pours costly ointment all over Jesus’ head. And Jesus receives it as a gift. She, the prophetic stranger, makes him the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’. She, the prophetic stranger, sends him on his journey to the cross.

In our eucharists, we may imagine we are being fed to feed others. We imagine that we are uniting spiritually and virtually [with those in need], in a crucible of passion, where we’re empowered to go out and speak for our neighbours. But what might a ‘deep solidarity’ that is eucharistically formed look like?

In Hodge Hill, the Real Junk Food Kitchen gathers food every week that is intercepted from supermarkets and restaurants who otherwise would throw it away, and turns it into a 3-course meal that every week around 100 people in our neighbourhood come together to enjoy. It’s not a soup kitchen, it’s a shared meal. It’s ‘pay as you feel’, so if you have money you can stick some money in the tin. If you don’t have money or don’t want to put money in the tin you can give your time or your talents or your gifts.
A couple of years after our first community Passion Play we did our first Street Nativity, and Soni (in the middle of the picture, wearing the King Herod costume) runs Atlantis Fish Bar. When we got to Atlantis Fish Bar with our three wise men following the star, Soni gave them a lecture about going to Bethlehem to find the child, and then coming back to report to him, and then he stripped off his robes and said, “free food for everybody!”. At that point, I get out my mobile phone and hastily tell the ladies at church, brewing the mulled wine, that we might be 45 minutes late! Soni’s generosity interrupted the church’s plans with an agenda that was straight from the Kingdom of heaven.

Over recent years, our Muslim neighbours have invited us to share Iftar with them – breaking the fast during Ramadan – and have shown us so much about what prayer, fasting and hospitality look like.

And in our neighbourhood most recently we have begun to reflect together on our journey of community-building over the years, of which the Passion Play was an early milestone. And in some of those reflective gatherings, the level of sharing and honesty that has happened, the level of excitement about what is happening in community, and wanting to tell others about it and invite others into it, has exceeded what most of the time I see in church.

So I want to suggest finally, that we need to ‘flip’ the christological axis: from ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ to ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, and from seeing Jesus only in our neighbour as hungry, thirsty, stranger to seeing Jesus in those who come with abundant gifts and abundant challenges to us. And maybe identifying, if we must, with a Jesus who is receptive to the abundant gifts and abundant challenges in the women who come to him and change him.
A few weeks ago, we had our first community talent show. There was some real talent, and if you knew them, each who performed on stage also had real fragility – it took a lot to get them up there, to perform, not just on the night but in the years before of confidence-building, encouraging, nurturing, tending relationships and wounds and anxieties and stresses. And there was a quality about the audience: family members and close friends of each of the acts were there, but so were many others in the community. And it wasn’t really a competition – everyone cheered for everyone and encouraged them if they faltered and looked for the shining light even when the voices cracked or the nerves got shaky. Where ‘attending’ did not just mean showing up, but looking for something deeply hidden sometimes. Seeing the glory in the flesh – in the broken, imperfect, fragile flesh of those who were there, who put their bodies up on the stage.

The writer Gillian Ahlgren suggests that this process might be called ‘incarnation’:

“a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.” (Gillian Ahlgren, The Tenderness of God)

Returning to the edge(s): discovering Christ in the ‘ecotone’
I want to introduce you to one last kind of edge. We’ve seen the cliff edge of precarity. We’ve seen the edges that people are pushed to through marginalization. I want to introduce you to the ecotone: it names that little stretch of earth between habitats, where immense fertility happens. The vital places where difference meet. We find them in our cities too, but we often don’t attend to them. Differences in race and class, of wealth and culture. Our cities are shot through with such edges, but they need tending and attending to.
I wonder, could it ultimately be profoundly unhelpful, in these times of deep fragmentation, to locate Christ on one ‘side’ or the other of our divides? Perhaps we are invited neither to ‘perform Christ’ nor to identify Christ with the neighbours who challenge us most acutely – but to discover Christ as ‘taking place’ in the space of encounter between us and our neighbours. It is Christ who draws us to our neighbours, and it is Christ whom we discover – both creative and unsettling – in the encounters with them. Christ in the ‘ecotone’ – in the edges between us.

And so perhaps we as the church should be concerned less with ‘expanding the territory’ of the body of Christ, and more with ‘extending the flesh of Jesus’ in those ‘contact-zones’, in those edges. Extending those places where we encounter each other across our differences, and discover that God is there.
I want to finish with some more words of Gillian Ahlgren, resonant with much that Pope Francis has been saying in recent years.

“For [St] Francis and [St] Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.” (Gillian Ahlgren, The Tenderness of God)

 Questions for further reflection:

  • What ecotones/edge-places are we being called to share in tending?
  • Where are we being called to attend more deeply to the gifts & challenges that come to us from our neighbours?
  • In what contact-zones might we be invited to share in extending?

Monday, 23 July 2018

Dividing walls, home-making, and an invitation to Donald Trump

"For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us"
(Ephesians 2:14)

Last Friday (13th July), a small group of us from Hodge Hill (including my 10 year old) headed down to London to join the protest against Donald Trump's visit to the UK. Infamously elected on the promise to build a wall (and make Mexico pay for it), Trump hasn't yet built that wall, but has built, or reinforced, all kinds of other walls: between white and black Americans; between Christians, Jews and Muslims; between Israelis and Palestinians; between men and women; between rich and poor; between able-bodied and disabled people; between straight and gay people; between humanity and the earth... the tragic list of divisions could go on and on...

And so we were there, not just to say No to him, but to say No to all he represents: the vicious, divisive use of immense power for immensely self-serving ends. It was exciting, adding our small numbers to a crowd of over 250,000 people, embodying visible Christian (some of us had dog collars on) solidarity to this immensely diverse body of human beings united in a common cause. It was, for my 10 year old, a brilliant education in the practice of protest politics, and a training ground for us, I have no doubt, for many more marches and protests to come. It was one big, loud No to the evil powers of division and hatred, and a big, multicoloured Yes to an alternative society: one where people of diverse skin colours, nationalities, faith commitments, genders, sexualities, dis/abilities and much more, can bridge those divides and celebrate their diversity, carnival-style, together.

But there were some aspects of the event that troubled me. Many of the placards focused in personally on Trump - inevitably - and were often comical in their rudeness. But this was about much more than his hairstyle, his level of intelligence, or his personality.

Our placards mostly followed the theme of building bridges, not walls, and reassuring those around us that Christians can actually be positively affirming of women, black people and LGBTQ+ people - despite some of the tragic contemporary embodiments of white-supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic so-called 'Christianity'. But just as the voice of an inclusive, affirming Christianity can get lost in the media amplification of Christianity's worst proponents, so in a crowd of a quarter of a million people there was little space for subtlety and nuance about our reasons for being there. The chants that we rehearsed before the start of the march were perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the march. "Say it loud, say it clear, Donald Trump's not welcome here." That was OK - although even then, something in me longed to be able to imagine some kind of 'welcome' that might be more hopeful, positive, that might God-knows-how change some of this. But the one that really stuck in my throat was when the chant-leader reminded us that women were "under attack", refugees were "under attack", black people were "under attack", Palestinians were "under attack" - and called us to respond, "Stand up - fight back!"

Stand up, yes. Fight back? Well, that's surely where a Christian committed to non-violent activism needs to find a different way. When we were preparing our placards the week before, in our Common Ground Community gathering in Hodge Hill, one of our community members wondered if our planned trip to London was truly 'prophetic', in the tradition of the biblical prophets, or was something else. Not necessarily negative, just something other than 'prophetic witness'. And I'm now sure he was right. Perhaps, in a small way, our presence was a challenge back to the Church, where it reminds silent, looks inward, sits on the fence. Adding our bodies to the crowd was expressing our solidarity. But if we were to be truly 'prophetic', we would I think have chosen 'the road less travelled', saying our No without violence - physical or verbal - inviting Donald Trump into some kind of Yes, some kind of 'joining', some kind of alternative future which would still have required him to get over his own dehumanising prejudices, relinquish his own immense power - but which would have called even him to come and find a home.

Jews, Gentiles, and Jesus

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians - Paul, or someone in his tradition - is a Jew, writing to non-Jewish, Gentile, Christians. It is tempting, when we read these letters in the Christian New Testament, to imagine the Christian Church as replacing Israel (what in the technical jargon is called 'supercessionism'), rather than joining Israel, holding on to the promise of the covenant that through Israel the whole world will be blessed and 'saved'. (The African-American theologian Willie James Jennings traces in thorough detail the connections between this supercessionist theology and the white supremacist ideologies that colonised, and brought slaves to, the Americas.)

But in the letter to the Ephesians, the writer reminds his readers that they were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (2:12), and that "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near" (2:13). Jesus, the Jew, is God's invitation to both Israel and the Gentiles to 'come home together', to join together as fellow members of the household of God. 'For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us" (2:14).

Salvation, here, is not about a ticket to heaven. It's more than individual forgiveness. It's about joining God's commonwealth of redemption and reconciliation. Or, in the words of writer Gillian Ahlgren reflecting on the lives of St Francis and St Clare, 'the "gospel life" is not grandiose or exaggerated... it is a simple and humble and joyful creation of a dwelling place for the divine - the making of a space for God's presence, in our hearts, our homes, our communities, and our troubled world' (The Tenderness of God, p.120). Gillian's words resonate with the closing prayer we use in our Shabbat prayers here in Hodge Hill, which draw on the ancient Jewish tradition in which Jesus himself was formed: "May God's shalom (God's peace, justice, healing - God's presence, even) be in our hearts. May God's shalom be in our homes. May God's shalom be in our lives. May God's shalom be in our world." This comes to the very heart of the mission of the church - because it is the heart of the mission of God in the world: the simple and humble and joyful making of a dwelling space for God.

And unlike government and media rhetoric around integration ('come here and do things how we do them') - a way of thinking we can sometimes be tempted into as a church too - what we're talking about here is a joining-together-in-diversity: a 'making flesh' of our 'kinship' with one another, across our differences, beyond our divides and our hostilities. "Kinship," Gillian Ahlgren writes, is "what happens to us when we refuse to forget that we belong to each other... Kinship is not service and it is not charity. Kinship, like solidarity, is mutuality, known as we share vulnerability, joy, challenges, hopes, dreams, and desires. It is the shared space where the tenderness that formed us calls us home." (p.148)

Which is not to say that any of this is easy - or warm, fluffy, and fuzzy. An invitation in to this joining, a welcome in to this kinship, demands something of us - something that, perhaps for some of us, is too much. "The kingdom of God," as the hymn goes, "is challenge and choice". It demands change of us. "The 'kingdom' of God, then, will be a society in which there will be no prestige and no status, no division of people into inferior and superior. Everyone will be loved and respected, not because of one’s education or wealth or ancestry or authority or rank or virtue or other achievements, but because one like everybody else is a person. … Those who could not bear to have beggars, former prostitutes, servants, women and children treated as their equals, who could not live without feeling superior to at least some people, would simply not be at home in God’s 'kingdom' as Jesus understood it. They would want to exclude themselves from it" (Albert Nolan, in Tenderness of God, p.132).

Glimpses of the kingdom

But it is possible. We've caught more than glimpses of it here in Hodge Hill, in our journey of community-building with our neighbours. Amidst the couple of thousand people who came to our third Hodge Hill Carnival a couple of weeks ago, our multi-faith Place of Welcome, a partnership between Christian and Muslim friends and neighbours, offered a place of cool shade, drinks and freshly-baked cakes, and somewhere to take the weight off your feet. And within the Place of Welcome was our Peace Tent, a quiet place for "prayer, thinking and getting your head together", as the sign said. And a place where, 3 times during the day, Christians and Muslims met together to pray, with simple, open, Christian-style and Muslim-style prayer times - where we learnt much from each other about our different ways of praying, and discovered common ground - holy ground - beneath our feet.

We've shared stories here and here about some of the other 'wow' moments in our Firs & Bromford neighbourhood over the last few months - among them some shared Iftars (fast-breaking prayers and meals during Ramadan) and our wonderful first FAB's Got Talent evening. All of these, for us, embodiments of glorious community across our differences, are gifts to us as church here - invitations to us as a church - not for us to sit in church and wait for 'them' to come to 'us' so that we can celebrate together our kinship in Christ, our shared membership of the kingdom, but for us to go to where community is growing and flourishing and deepening around us in our neighbourhoods, to join in, and be enriched and challenged and changed by what we encounter there. And this, for us in Hodge Hill, is the particular gift that what we're calling 'messy and missional church' brings to our wider extended church family here - even as our other expressions of church can offer that much longer story of receiving and celebrating and wrestling with our kinship in Christ over so many years in the spaces we've been more accustomed to calling 'church'.

So listening, and learning, and receiving from each other, so that the dividing walls continue to be broken down, is an absolutely essential practice for us as Christians here. As American writer Parker Palmer puts it, "What we need is not simply the individual at prayer, seeking to stand in his or her own sacred space. We need a corporate practice that seeks a space in which we can all stand together. We need to know that God wants to bring us together as God’s people and that we must listen to each other, in the words and in the silences between them, testing our own truth against the truth received by others. We need to know that God will work a greater truth in all of us standing together than can be worked in any one of us standing alone” (quoted in Tenderness, p.138).

'Come home, Donald'

And so back to Donald Trump. In the midst of the sound and fury, the undiplomatic chaos and the carnival of resistance, around his visit to the UK last week, I discovered at least one still, small voice speaking a profoundly prophetic Yes…

The Scottish Quaker writer, environmentalist and ‘spiritual activist’ Alastair McIntosh has pointed out that Donald Trump’s mother emigrated from the Isle of Lewis, and that her ancestors would have suffered the trauma of being brutally evicted from their land in the Highland Clearances on the island in the 1820s. McIntosh notes that the landlords who enforced the clearances introduced to their new tenants a harsh, black-and-white Calvinist worldview of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘elect’ and ‘damned’, ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, and a deep internal sense of dislocation. Could it be, McIntosh wonders, that Donald carries within himself something of this family trauma, a deep, internal woundedness – that attracts others who carry a similar internal woundedness in themselves? And the displaced becomes the displacer, the preyed-on becomes the predator, the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

In spiritual activism, says McIntosh, when we push with one hand we must support with the other. And so McIntosh the poet, who like Trump’s mother himself grew up on Lewis, invites Donald (in a poem written in 2011 when Trump was 'merely' an aggressive businessman building a golf course on protected land on the Scottish coast) to ‘come home’…

“… from beauty’s desecration of true nature free and wild … from climate change vainglorious in ‘guiltless decadence’ Come home, Donald … Come home in your mind! Come home to gentle honest folks! Come home to nature’s guileless way! without greed without force without tears Renounce the rootless sands of capital and pride! Renounce the decorated corpse of suppurating wealth! Renounce those ‘vicious … violent’ so-called winning ways! … Come home, o Donald Trump, come home to this new start … and build a golden Tower to be your greatest work of living art … that rises from the fairway as the meteoric human heart Transmuted … Transfigured … Transubstantiated Come home, Donald … just come on home.”

The good news for Donald Trump, the good news for our neighbours here in Hodge Hill, is the good news also for those of us gathered right here: "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." The summons of the gospel is to no more and no less than this: the "simple and humble and joyful creation of a dwelling place for the divine – the making of a space for God’s presence, in our hearts, our homes, our communities, and our troubled world". Together, let us continue that simple, humble, joyful work.

[adapted from a sermon preached on Sunday 22nd July, 2018, in Hodge Hill Church]