Thursday, 27 October 2011

thank you, Giles Fraser

letter posted today to Revd Dr Giles Fraser, until today a Canon of St Paul's Cathedral in London :

Dear Dr Fraser,

I write to express my appreciation of the stand you have taken over the protest mounted by the 'Occupy London Stock Exchange' at St Paul's, which is echoed by similar protests across the world.

Over the last thirty years we have seen another 'occupation' going on : a progressive 'occupation' of supposedly democratic structures by financial power. An 'occupation' very much more damaging to the 'health and safety' of vast numbers of people. I trace the start of this 'occupation' to Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership — a Prime Minister who believed that business people were the sort of people who knew best how to run things. As indeed they did : they ran things so well that they took much of our manufacturing industry overseas. The financiers took their place, but by the time this happened finance had gone truly global, breaking the human bonds that bound it such that powerful financial institutions could bring whole countries to their knees. These institutions have proved adept — with a little assistance from HMRC — at offshoring their profits to avoid tax responsibilities, accountable to no one save themselves.

We have ended up with the sorry spectacle of our elected politicians running scared of the press and even more scared of the markets. For myself, I believe that we elect politicians (of which, in a humble way, I am one, as a Green member of Oxford City Council) to provide the ethical rules by which finance and business run. I'm not sure what else politicians are there for, really, apart perhaps from avoiding wars. Maybe I am naïve in believing that in fact it is in business's interest to have the playing field marked out and the rules defined and policed. An ungoverned financial sector (which is pretty much what we now have) was inevitably going to lead to mayhem; and it always was going to rebound hardest on the people at the bottom of the pile who (according to my understanding of the Hebrew scriptures) are precisely the people 'kings' are there to defend.

The penetration of financiers into the corridors of power is very deep. If some of the blogs I read are to be believed, their penetration into the corridors of power in the Church of England — and St Paul's Cathedral in particular — is also significant.

As a United Reformed Church minister, I have been brought up to believe in the separation of powers of Church and State. Perhaps the equivalent of this for our time needs to be the separation of powers of State and the New Religion of the great god Mammon whose temples rise to the sky around St Paul's, asserting their dominance.

When the 'Occupy' protest first began outside St Paul's I felt that this would be a crucial test of the Church's witness against the principalities and powers. We prayed for you at Temple Cowley URC that Sunday morning, as we reflected on the Gospel reading, "Render to Cæsar . . ." I prayed that the cathedral would stand the test, because its witness was not just its witness only, but on behalf of the whole ecumenical Church in these islands. (Most of those watching the protest from a distance have little sense of the distinctions between churches.) When, to my dismay, comments leaked out that St Paul's was concerned about its loss of revenue, I hoped that the Church of England would step up to the plate with its backing, and made a small donation myself. But it was an ominous sign. In recent days, it was becoming increasingly clear that the cathedral was going to 'revert to type' as a pillar of the Establishment, the church of kings and princes — confirming every stereotype and hampering the Christian mission for another generation.

Your resignation restores my hope that there is some Christian faith lurking in the Church, even in its most Establishment bastions . . . and even if those with that faith have to resign to prove it. I hope the brothers and sisters you leave behind will reflect hard on their priorities and 'decide this day whom they will serve'. And I wish you the very best for your own future.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

a letter to the Bahraini ambassador

posted Saturday :

Her Excellency Mrs. Alice Thomas Samaan
Bahrain Embassy - London
30 Belgrave Square

Dear Mrs Samaan,
You will be all too aware, as are many in this country, of the 15 year sentences passed against a number of doctors and nurses in Bahrain for treating casualties of disturbances earlier this year. I believe that their appeal commences tomorrow (Sunday).

I imagine that as Bahraini ambassador in the UK you must be deeply embarrassed by this treatment of medical staff for doing what every doctor in the world knows is a doctor's primary responsibility, regardless of circumstances. The fact that, it seems, your country's government and legal profession seem unaware of this basic promise speaks volumes about their understanding of what it means either to be a nation or to be a human being, let alone a doctor. I can just imagine how many people will want to serve in Bahrain's hospitals now . . . I hope that other countries' hospitals will gain from Bahrain's loss.

I cannot imagine that there is anything in the moral code of any of the world's main religions that would consider the treatment of casualties a punishable offence. I am sure that there is no such teaching anywhere in Islam, and there is certainly nothing of this in my own Christian tradition. Even if the people they treated had been enemy soldiers at war with Bahrain, the Geneva Conventions would require the wounds of enemy combatants to be treated by Bahrain's doctors. I need to make this clear, because the claims of some in your government that the injured were effectively enemy combatants is utterly irrelevant, even if it were true (which I don't know). Is Bahrain not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions?

It is true that those conventions have been sorely breached by US and British forces in Iraq and elsewhere, but you will be aware that this led to an outcry of embarrassment from the public and disciplinary action against those responsible — although that disciplinary action did not, in my view, go nearly far or high enough. It is the responsibility of those in the highest positions to make clear what standards are applying. Any suggestion that abuse of prisoners will not be dealt with immediately and robustly creates conditions lower down the chain of command where abuse is almost guaranteed to happen. That is why it is particularly alarming to see a government not only tolerating brutal treatment of its own people, but even penalising those who do their duty to the wounded.

I have to say that, inevitably, this is a sign of the beginning of the end for any state, because it has started to cease functioning as a state. Instead it is starting to function as an élite at war with its own people. Its days are inevitably numbered because it cannot last. The end may come swiftly, or after many years of misery and brutality, but come it will.
I did not know much about Bahrain before, although I have passed through briefly en route for India. The little I now know about it is that it is a state that is beginning to fail, cut off from the world and living by values that reflect no understanding of what makes a nation's life worth living, and no respect for individual human life — even the human life of its own citizens.

I hope you will speak into the closed world of your country's rulers and at least tell them what an embarrassing position they are putting you in. In your position, I would be resigning, I think : I couldn't bear the humiliation. But maybe it is not too late to prevent the inevitable decline into a failed state, if you can persuade your rulers to overturn these bizarre convictions.

Yours sincerely,

Thursday, 20 October 2011

video clips on bible books

. . . an intriguing collection of short videos from theology staff at the University of Nottingham, one for each book of the Bible.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Self-esteem and violence

In my post Atrocity and 'Humanity' below I reflected on the Norwegian mass-killer Breivik and referred to ". . a profoundly low self-esteem, coupled with an inflated ego". I remember at the time pondering on this strange coupling of two apparently conflicting characteristics.

There was an interview with Stephen Pinker on Radio 4 this morning. He has a new book coming out, The Better Angels of our Nature in which, apparently, he suggests that the human race is becoming progressively less violent, and tries to find out what we're doing right. I have to admit that, given the appallingly violent history of the last century in terms of the sheer numbers of human beings killed by their fellow human beings this seems a strange starting point.

But in the interview there was a brief discussion about self-esteem. He said that the theory that violent behaviour can be caused by low self-esteem has never had any real factual analysis behind it, and that the opposite is in fact true. It is caused by having too much self-esteem.

I must admit, that rings more true; but the implications - for example, for penal policy - are a bit disquieting.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Come, all you shoppers

Harvest Festival time again. Here's a song wot I wrote a few years back, to fit the hymn tune (originally an English traditional tune) 'Kingsfold'. It's offered with a respectful nod to the memory of the late Sydney Carter, who wrote ‘Come, all you makers’.

1 Come, all you shoppers of the world
and sing with me today
Oh, join me on the journey
we mark this Harvest day.
I travel in Creation
I’ll travel to its end
I share its joy and sorrow through
the Holy One I send.

2. I’ll travel by the tilling and planting of the earth
the weeding, watering, mulching
that gives the seed new birth.
I’ll travel by the harvesting
of crops — of grape and grain,
the skills of those who labour
for you ‘by hand or brain’ (footnote 1)

3. I’ll travel with the oxcart
from paddy, pen or field
the haggling of the market
and the driving of a deal
with those who drive the road trains
refrigeration cold
from silo to container
and down into the hold

4. I’m there at port and warehouse
by packing belt and crate
I share the migrant worker’s
low-paid, uncertain fate
I watch the politicians
of subsidy and trade
the ones who fix the prices
the ones who dole out aid

5. I crouch beside the peasant
whose harvest can’t compete
with a million tons of surplus
from a subsidised élite.
And then, by truck and trolley,
and supermarket shelf
I reach your kitchen table
. . . and watch you feed yourself

6. I’d love to share the stories
of those I’ve travelled with —
the pain, the exploitation,
the skill, initiative,
relief and celebration
of harvest gathered in,
which is no less mysterious
for coming in a tin.

7. But the more that you’re not interested
or ‘haven’t got the time’
the more the new creation’s fruits
will wither on the vine. (footnote 2)
Supply chains will be broken
wars divide the lands
the earth itself be poisoned . .
hear now, and understand!

Now come, you shoppers of the world
Pause! Give thanks! and shout
till justice flows like rivers (footnote 3)
For that’s what I’m about.

footnote 1 : from the old ‘Clause 4’ of the Labour Party constitution, unfortunately long since dropped : “to secure for the producers by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry”

footnote 2 : see John 15 : 5 - 6; Mark 4 : 3 - 9; Mark 11 : 12 - 14, 20 - 21

footnote 3 : Amos 5 : 23 - 24