December 31, 2008
Mark B still hasn’t addressed the questions I put!
I am not going to get drawn in to a discussion of the etymological or ideological roots of anti-Semitism – Mark and I will clearly disagree. I will simply rebutt the notion that ‘Antisemitismus’ and ‘Judenhass’ are synonymous.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and others have made statements – links are:
Archbishop’s statement on Gaza
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has made the following statement regarding the current situation in Gaza:
The spiralling violence in Gaza tragically illustrates the fact that the cycle of mutual threat and retaliation have no lasting effect except to reinforce the misery and insecurity of everyone in the region. I want to express my grief and sympathy for the innocent lives lost in this latest phase of violence. People of all faiths in this country will want to join their voices to the statements of the Christian Muslim Forum and the Council of Christians and Jews in urging a return to the ceasefire and efforts to secure a lasting peace. We must unite in urging all those who have the power to halt this spiral of violence to do so.
Those raising the stakes through the continuation of indiscriminate violence seem to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. It must surely be clear that, whilst peace will not wipe out the memory of all past wrongs, it is the only basis for the future flourishing of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The recent statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Church in Jerusalem reflects a clear awareness that there can be no winners if the current situation is allowed to persist. Its continuation can only condemn ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens to the prospect of another year of fear and suffering.
Urgent humanitarian needs have arisen through the attacks on Gaza and Israel and they demand a generous response to local appeals for support, such as that issued by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem for its hospital in Gaza. But this humanitarian response, both local and international, needs to be matched by redoubled efforts in the political sphere.
The prophet Zechariah declared, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts”. The New Year is an opportunity for a new initiative that will set the tone for what lies ahead. Religious leaders, most particularly those of the region, have an urgent responsibility in supporting the search for peace and reconciliation. But it is the political leaders and opinion-formers who hold the key to implementing the necessary changes that can bring hope. Can they not agree a period of truce as the New Year begins, so that the communities of the Holy Land may once again explore how common security might at last begin to replace the mechanical rhythms of mutual threat? Might the outgoing and incoming Presidents of the USA combine to make such an appeal and pursue its implementation?
The Anglican Communion worldwide stands alongside other religious communities and humanitarian organisations in its commitment to supporting any such initiative. Without such a sign of hope, the future for the Holy Land and the whole region is one of more fear, innocent suffering and destruction.
The statement by Imam Dr Musharraf Hussain and The Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Co-Chairs of the ‘Christian Muslim Forum’ is available at: http://www.christianmuslimforum.org/subpage.asp?id=325
The statement by The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Chair of the ‘Council of Christians and Jews’ is available at: http://www.ccj.org.uk/
The statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Church in Jerusalem is available at: http://www.lpj.org/newsite2006/news/2008/12/gaza-message-en-headschrches2008.html
The statement by the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem about Al Ahli Arab Hospital is available at: http://www.j-diocese.org/newsdetail.php?id=3386
December 30, 2008
Is Mark B the only person reading this stuff? We are almost engaged in a one-to-one conversation! But, I’ll respond to his two comments anyway.
Firstly, I am surprised that he doesn’t engage at all with what is going on in Gaza, but picks up on my use of the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’. Embarrassingly, he will only have to look in some standard books on Hitler, World War Two, German politics, etc to find the term exactly as I have used it. His definition might suit his purposes, but it is selective at the very least and misleading at best.
Being USA-based, he might not be aware of the sort of UK experience that made me make the remark in the first place. I’ll give one example to illustrate the problem (and I write as one who studied German history and politics, who works in relation to Germany a lot, who engages in interfaith dialogues involving inter alia good Jewish friends in Israel, who has worked in the intelligence services in Britain as a Russian and German linguist and who is concerned to keep communication clear). I am the Anglican (Church of England) Co-chair of the Meissen Commission which for the last 20 years has worked at bringing the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland closer together. I took over my role at the beginning of 2007 and inherited the quinquennial report of the previous Commission. The report contained one page on a matter of concern in England: the experience of Germans (mostly children) who still receive abuse becasue of the Second World War. It was observed that history teaching in England seemed to focus on Hitler and the period 1933-45. This was simply noted as an area for possible future attention. I was shocked to find that a newspaper mention of this led to me receiving letters and emails claiming I was denying the Holocaust, was anti-Semitic (sic) and should be ashamed.
How can a reasoned debate take place (about anything) when this sort of reflex charge is instantly laid? In some quarters it is impossible to criticise Israeli policies without being accused of anti-Semitism – whihc, of course, is intended to close down any discussion, debate or critique. I maintain that that is unacceptable.
Secondly, Mark’s reasoning in his second comment that “‘civilian’ causalties from targeted Israeli bombing in a crowded place are comparatively low, and considerably less proportionately than the deaths from British or German bombing of cities in WWII” is, frankly, staggering. Firstly, why is the word ‘civilians’ in inverted commas? The five sisters killed in their sleep were clearly not in uniform. Or do they not count? Secondly, to argue that the numbers killed are comparatively less than in WW2 city bombings is surely not intended to justify Israeli bombings? That would be like arguing that Pol Pot was relatively harmless becasue he didn’t do as much damage as Stalin. It might be true, but it doesn’t begin to address the ethical issue at hand.
The main point I was making (and will reiterate) is that this action will not give Israel what it wants. One can only invite just treatment when you offer justice to the other – in the same way as security for oneself can only be possible if security is also offered to the other. So, the question remains: how will this current disproportionate barbarity enable either Palestinian or Israeli to have to have a more secure future?
December 29, 2008
It is impossible not to be horrified by the violence in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has ratcheted up the tensions and, dropping the ceasefire, has been rocketing Israeli territory. Israel has responded with a level of violence that cannot be justified. It is an exercise of naked power that should make the world freeze with incredulity and boil with anger.
What makes this so tragic is the unwillingness of violent powermongers to learn the lessons of history. Israel might bomb a recalcitrant people into the dust, but it cannot bomb an idea or a grievance into disappearance. However short-term the gain by Israel today, the anger and grief of the Palestinians – rooted in a sharpened sense of victimhood – will now feed the vengeance of generations to come.
In other words, whatever the ‘justification’, however severe the provocation, wherever the violent imposition of ‘order’, Israel’s violence will not achieve what Israel wants: it will merely prolong the agonies and everyone will continue to suffer.
The problem is, however, that Israel knows that the West will whimper its objections, but do nothing. The warring factions in the Congo and that great despot Robert Mugabe know that words of condemnation will not be followed up by action, thus rendering them untouchable. Israel knows the same. If the weight on Obama’s shoulders was not already enormous, here is another burden for him to address quickly: how to uncouple uncritical American support of Israel from its necessary role in enabling a just solution to Middle East conflict.
I guess this will now incur the wrath of those who see any questioning of Israel as being anti-Semitic (despite that the Palestinians are also Semitic people). So be it. But it seems to me that to uncritically ignore the strictures derived from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves against behaviour such as that of the Israeli government is of itself deeply anti-Semitic – that is to say, it declines to take seriously the vocation of a powerful people to exercise mercy.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
December 27, 2008
Posted by nickbaines under rationalism
| Tags: Africa
|  Comments
Having launched a broadside against Polly Toynbee’s unintelligent rant in last weeks’s Guardian, I now read Matthew Parris’s unlikely article about the Afrcian challenge to his own atheism in today’s Times (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece).
Any chance of a debate between the two of them?
December 26, 2008
Mark B thinks I am too generous to Polly Toynbee whom he writes off as ‘just another rich secular leftist (in a rather crowded field) – like Marghanita Laski but without her brains – who loves the sound of her own voice and blows hot and blows cold, oblivious of her own inconsistency: Polly puts the kettle on for her beloved Tony Blair, then takes it off again, delares her love for Gordo, then it’s off again, on again – la donna e mobile!’ He then delights in her ‘hypocrisy’ being skewered on the telly. Well, thanks, Mark. The trouble is that I can’t see either you or me escaping from some charge of hypocrisy or blindness to our own inconsistencies.
I agree that Polly Tonybee is exasperating when she gets onto religion, but her writing on Labour’s ‘New Deal’ and the ways in which some policies follow the laws of unintended consequences has been both compassionate and passionate as well as provocative. The problem is, however, that she seems to do this from an analytical distance. And she is not alone in working in a profession that happily skewers people ontheir hypocrisies whilst maintaining immune from the same sort of consistency. When was the last time a newspaper editor (responsible for the public humiliation of other people) resigned in shame over their own hypocrisy? And yet they adopt the role of a sort of new priesthood: moderating public morality and claiming a sort of righteous neutrality for themselves. It stinks. But they only get away with it becasue the reading public keeps allowing them to do so.
It could be argued that the media, constantly looking for novelty in order to keep the audience awake, foster precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury was exposing and embarrassing in his Christmas Day sermon. He set about debunking the fantasy that there is some ‘saviour’ or system out there that will sort out the world’s problems and make everything alright. I began my working life in a divided Europe working for the British Government as a Russian linguist, paying very close attention to the Soviet Empire that proposed just such a totalitarian system. And history repeatedly demonstrates that such hopes are indeed fantasies: the ‘golden age’ cannot be reclaimed because it never existed in the first place. Augustus, Hitler, Stalin and many others have offered total solutions. We are now asking our politicians to come up with the panacaea for the global economy. Barack Obama comes into office in three weeks’ time with a weight of unsustainable expectation on his shoulders.
We should grow up and realise that we create our history now as we make decisions in the small things of life for which we are responsible. Growing up means losing our fantasies, not fostering them and then humiliating the people who don’t fulfil them on our behalf.
Rowan spoke of ‘signs of salvation; not a magical restoration of the golden age, but the stubborn insistence that there is another order, another reality, at work in the midst of moral and political chaos’ – that is, the God who took flesh and transformed the world’s possibilities from unimaginably small beginnings by asking people to try it his way.
This thinking needs to be applied also to the Christian world itself where there is a constant yearning for the ‘thing’ that will sort everything out and solve all our problems. Billy Graham was followed by John Wimber who was followed by the Torronto Blessing which was followed by Willow Creek and now we have a proliferation of panacaeas for evangelism, revival, etc. In the Church of England there are those who suggest that if only everyone could buy into New Wine, Spring Harvest, Reform, Anglican Mainstream, etc. (choose which one most closely aligns with your own prejudices or confirms your own convictions), the Church would grow and revival would come. It is fantasy.
It seems to me that history teaches us (and, funnily enough, so does the Bible) that we need to develop a ‘godly’ perspective on time, responsibility and accountability – recognising the relativity of much of what we do. In my old church in Rothley I used to baptise in a Norman font (1000+ years old), drink wine from an Elizabethan chalice (400+ years old) and look at a plaque bearing the names of every vicar of Rothley from the eleventh century – to say nothing of the Saxon cross in the churchyard. God’s witness continues down the ages by people being faithful to their bit of the story and living real lives in a real world of injustice and joy and handing on the task to successive generations. This perspective produces inevitably a bit of humility when we consider our successes and achievements.
In my book ‘Finding Faith’ I praise John Lennon for being a hypocrite of enormous proportions. He never let his hypocrisy stop him saying what he thought was true. Mark might be right about Polly Toynbee, but I recognise my own limitations and inconsistencies and – whilst wishing she’d grow up a bit in some areas – still want to affirm her right to say what she does. But I would also hope that she might consider the possibility that her irrational anti-religious prejudices might need to be rationally re-visited.
So, I won’t sneer at her. I will jeer at her nonsenses and anyone who castigates the hypocrisy of others while ignoring their own. And I’ll cheer the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who, despite being sneered at by people like Polly Toynbee, still manage to articulate the real questions and expose the superficiality of our collective thinking.
December 24, 2008
Posted by nickbaines under Christmas
| Tags: Bruce Cockburn
| 1 Comment
It is almost Christmas and I am, at last, going shopping. Town will be full of men – the women are always better organised when it comes to present buying.
Of all the Christmas thinking – and I will be in a parish this evening conducting and preaching at the Midnight Communion – it is Bruce Cockburn who still gets to the heart of the matter for me. There is a track on his ‘Nothing But a Burning Light’ album which shines a new light on the Nativity and has as its chorus the following:
‘Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.’
I have managed to get that into almost every Christmas sermon since 1991. Why? Because it opens up the mystery of the Incarnation rather than closing it down into the familiar. It suggests (as only poetry can) that God took both time and enormous risk coming into the world as a vulnerable baby in a country suffering uncertainty, occupation and unrest, waiting and then taking all the time in the world to go with the flow of the world and not rushing even redemption.
I hope this that Christmas, at a time of great uncertainty in the world, the roots of ‘happiness’ will be found in the realisation that God opts into this world, will not be rushed and trusts us enough to take such a massive risk. Of course, to be a follower of this Jesus also means opting into (and not out of) the real world, committing ourselves to its renewal and healing – even if our bit of it feels as insignificant as a stone rippling the surface of a still river.
December 23, 2008
What is it about rationalists that some of them become so irrational when it comes to religion? Polly Toynbee, one of the best, most articulate and intelligent columnists in the British media, is also president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society. She writes about British politics and people with compassion and, often, great wisdom. But when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, all rationality goes out of the window and everything turns to irritable fluff.
In today’s Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/dec/23/atheism-disestablishentment-rowan-williams-humanism) she writes of the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘with his usual confused mumbling into his beard’. Oh, come on, Polly – grow up.
She then goes on as follows: ‘The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life.’
It is hard to know where to start to respond to such nonsense; but, here goes.
The bishops in the House of Lords ‘regularly interfere’, do they? And what do all the other members of the Upper House do? Presumably, they make ‘intelligent contributions’ or ‘help shape the political and moral agenda’. Is it only bishops who, by fulfilling their responsibilities (whether or not one approves of them having them in the first place – which is a different argument), are technically ‘interfering’? Or is it simply that if you happen to disagree with Polly Toynbee, you are clearly either ‘interfering’ or somehow illegitimate?
What underlies this is the arrogant assumption that her assumptions about the world are self-evidently true while the assumptions of others (Christians, for example) are to be derided or disregarded. The bishops are a ‘threat’ on abortion. In what sense? Because they don’t necessarily agree with her own views – which are, of course, self-evidently true? What sort of a society does this sort of irrational and hysterical rationalism want: one in which only certain views are to be respected and which is led and shaped by people who assume (without argument) that their world view is self-evidently right? Give me anytime the confident humility of the Church Toynbee so derides – which, at least, argues its case and allows for the possibility that it might not have the final word on every subject under the sun. (But don’t get me started on the Pope’s statement on gender boundaries…)
Just to push the point firmly home, Toynbee also uses spurious statistics on church membership that were disowned even by the organisation that produced them. The statistical base for the flat-line projections offered by Christian Research at the end of 2007 were ridiculed by everyone except those who have an ideological need to claim them. Had they been Government statistics on poverty (for example), Polly Toynbee would have dismissed them as fundamentally flawed, deeply misleading and unworthy of a creditable organisation.
The two organisations to which Polly belongs have a membership of 3000 (National Secular Society) and 5000 (British Humanist Association) – and it is probable that there is some duplication in those figures as some will be members of both. Both organisations are regularly consulted by Government and media as if they had credibility. I think they do – on the grounds that minority perspectives need to be taken into account and that they oftes have interesting observations to make. But, if Polly wants to argue that numbers justify influence, shouldn’t we just ignore two groups of people that would fit into two of our larger cathedrals in one go? Do 1.7 million Anglican worshippers (every month since 2000) – to say nothing of other denominations – have less right to ‘influence’ than a few thousand people who are angry about ‘religion’?
‘The unctuous claim there is a special religious ethos that can be poured like a sauce over schools and public services to improve them morally’ is a carefully phrased bit of dismissive nonsense. If Polly Toynbee really thinks that is how these things work, then she has a bigger problem than we thought. I think she has a serious point about protection of religious sensibilities from criticism in the public sphere – but she doesn’t help develop an argument by using such silly language to express her irritation that she can’t have it her way.
I won’t go on. The rest of the article should be read, if only to demonstrate how irrational a rationalist can be. Is it not possible for there to be a sensible conversation about this sort of thing? Yes, there are religious people who take irrationalism to new heights. Yes, there are religious people who are, frankly, dangerous. Yes, there are religious people whose faith is a pile of wishful thinking and fantasy. But there are also religious people who are deeply rational, socially compassionate, not bigotted and open to intelligent discussion and debate. We could start with the ‘bearded one’ Polly Toynbee sneers at at the beginning of her article.
December 20, 2008
I am thinking of offering a daily prize for the most obvious and shameless media breach of the Ninth Commandment.
Last night I was watching Sky News and their coverage of the funerals of the Foster family who were killed by the father before all their property and possessions were burned. The funerals had been conducted by The Venerable Tony Sadler and he was interviewed by the news presenter. Despite what he had actually said in the sermon (the relevant parts of which were broadcast) and what he said in the interview, the ‘headlines’ repeated by the presenter claimed: ‘Priest says forgiveness would be a step too far’. So, the story is that a priest urges people not to forgive Mr Foster for killing his wife and daughter and then himself.
Now, that might be an understandable reaction. But it isn’t what Tony Sadler said and it could not be inferred from what he did say unless whoever wrote the headline was either deliberately misrepresenting the point or was so ignorant he/she should not be employed in a communications medium. Sadler actually said that Christians have to forgive and can do no other. However, for some people at this point, this might be step too far. In other words, he was recognising and giving voice to what some people might be feeling – but he wasn’t commending it or re-writing Christian theology. This is more than just a matter of semantic distinction. The priest did not say that ‘forgiveness would be a step too far’.
But, it seems to me, Sadler was recognising what is often misunderstood when it comes to the matter of forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor and theologian who was hanged at Flossenburg in April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, began his book The Cost of Discipleship with an excoriating rejection of what he called ‘billige Gnade’ (‘cheap grace’). In the context of forgiveness ‘cheap grace’ involves a form of religious behaviour that costs nothing – an easy theology that avoids the pain and the offence. Cheap forgiveness involves saying you forgive when you actually do not – or trying to forgive before you are ready to do so. Even worse, forgiveness must never be a form of escapism – a way of avoiding the pain of the offence by refusing to engage with it. This lay at the heart of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Surely the epitome of forgiveness is to be seen on the Cross. But here, at the place where the world’s violence is seen to be exacted on the innocent sufferer, forgiveness is not easy and is not sentimental – or simply a means to an end. Rather, forgiveness involves looking the offence (and the offender) in the eye and naming it for what it is. This is no escapism and it can’t be seen as cheap.
Forgiveness sets both the offender and the victim free – that is true. But it can’t be fabricated or played with. Forgiveness can only be offered when the offended is ready to do so honestly. That is what Tony Sadler was getting so right during his sensitive sermon. It is patently what the journalists at Sky News either did not understand or deliberately sacrificed for the sake of a more arresting headline.
December 19, 2008
So, which version of the great song is going to hit the Christmas number one spot tomorrow? In one sense, I don’t really care. Cohen goes to the bank and recovers some of the millions his finance bloke nicked and a brilliant example of song-writing gets heard by a generation growing up on pap.
Mark suggests that this is music for adolescents and I wonder how old he is. Why? Because I grew up in the seventies when Leonard Cohen’s songs were called ‘songs to slit your wrists to’ – dour, morose and ‘deep’. But, contrary to Mark’s perception, I have found Cohen’s lyrics still haunt me after all these years in a way that few others’ do. Cockburn is a poet, Dylan gets behind the safe places of the mind and scratches away, Clapton captures the blues in a way few others can – and Cohen is a craftsman who creates lyrics that work at lots of levels.
Whatever we conclude about taste, though, the powerful thing about ‘Hallelujah’ is the way he suffuses spirituality with physicality and vice versa. He refuses to allow the dichotomy that disembodies spirituality and tacitly embraces Plato. This is why I think it is so good that this Christmas we will have a song at number one in the charts that ‘gets’ the point of Christmas: God opting into a messy and complicated world – not helping people escape from it. That, it seems to me, is what the Incarnation is all about. The Word became flesh – and we shouldn’t try to reverse the process just because it is less complicated.
Anyway, I’m visiting my parents in Liverpool and will reflect in the next couple of days on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interviews on the global financial crisis and the possibilities for disestablishment of the Church of England. I bet you can’t wait…
December 17, 2008
There is a load of stuff going on at the moment about the choice of Leonard Cohen’s great song ‘Hallelujah’ for the winner of television’s ‘X Factor’. I thought we had reached the nadir of song abuse when it was used in the film ‘Shrek’ as a sort of sentimental reflection on the love of the ogre and his (now) green princess. In that case it was performed by Rufus Wainwright – which is fine in so far as it was a good interpretation of the song. But, I mean, really… in ‘Shrek’?
This song has been covered by hundreds of people and is now being murdered by buskers all over Europe. I heard a teenage girl in Lindau (Bavaria) killing it softly last summer. I gave her a couple of euros in the hope that she would go and get herself a drink, but also in order to encourage her – I used to busk around Germany and Paris when I was a teenager and I probably had the same effect on other people when I throttled their favourite songs. I understand it has been covered by around 120 people.
The song was written 25 years ago and it took Cohen five years to complete. During this time he wrote over 80 verses to it. Why? Because Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest poet-songwriters of our generation: he kept wanting to get it right. I recently contributed to a documentary on BBC Radio 2 (broadcast on 1 November 2008) in which Elbow’s Guy Garvey interviewed a load of singers about the song. I think (but I might be wrong) that he expected a bishop to deplore Cohen’s hijacking of religious language for ‘other’ ends, but I didn’t. I maintained that Cohen, in fact, had properly understood the Bible in a way that some Christians do not: that is to say, he understood that real human life – even that of the ‘heroes’ of the Bible like David and Samson – is deeply ambiguous. Whereas some Christians think that we must praise God at all times and tell him what we think he wants to hear from us, the biblical story actually portrays people as needing to bring the whole of their messy life to God. Cohen sings of the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’.
Leonard Cohen is wonderful. He explores language and story in such a transparent way that he exposes the truth of the human condition in words that make you want to shout, ‘That’s what I feel/think/experience!’ And that is the power of the poet. Bruce Cockburn proposes in his song ‘Maybe the Poet’ that it is only the poets who can express the relaity of our lives and only the poets who can tease our imaginations in ways that keep the hope of heaven alive in desperate times. I haven’t got time to indulge in this, but read Walter Brueggemann and you’ll get my drift. Or listen to Cohen. Or Cockburn.
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