March 30, 2010
The great writer Philip Pullman was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show this afternoon (BBC Radio 2) and the piece can only be listened to for the next seven days – unfortunately. Pullman’s new book is published tomorrow and is called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Obviously, I haven’t read it, but I have read and heard enough to make me want to read it.
According to the interview, the novel basically attempts to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Christ appropriated by the Church: the former was a good bloke, but the latter went astray and got it all wrong. Several things can be said about this:
1. This isn’t new thinking. Many twentieth-century theologians tried to make a similar distinction between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Of course, the distinction was arbitrary and often a convenient way of dealing with the difficult or inconvenient bits of the New Testament. So, the reaction by some Christians to the idea of Pullman’s book simply demonstrates that they are a bit behind on their theology.
2. The Church should not feel the need to hide from its history and especially from its mistakes. Pullman and others often do us a service by shining a light on us that can only be directed from outside the Church – illuminating our weaknesses and inconsistencies. What is the problem with this? The Church has a good theology of failure (and redemption) and shouldn’t be scared of being seen as it is and as it has been. OK, Pullman is a bit preoccupied with it and not all his critiques stand much scrutiny, but some of it does.
The interview was interesting, dealing with the nature of the Gospels, the status of the Bible and the mindset of those nutters who threaten Pullman with death. Pullman respects the Gospels and the biblical text, but sees them as works of human inventiveness. What disturbs him is not the witness they bear, but the use made of them (for reasons of power) by subsequent generations of Christians. He acknowledges the apologetic power of the inconsistencies in the Gospels – particularly in relation to the resurrection accounts – and recognises that unified narratives would have been the product of propaganda.
However, the subtleties of biblical literature are clearly lost on some of those who then called in to comment on these matters (as, again, George Pitcher points out):
- ‘The Bible is just fiction’ demonstrates a stupid ignorance of both (a) what fiction is and (b) what the Bible is. The Bible is made up of a range of different genres of literature and (as one example) poetry cannot be read in the same way as prophecy or a New Testament letter. To write off the whole ‘book’ as ‘fiction’ just proves that the contributor hasn’t bothered to read it as it is written.
- ‘The Bible cannot be questioned or re-written’ is simply sad. I agree that it can’t be re-written (it is what it is) any more than Hamlet can be re-written without it becoming a different play. But if the Bible has to be protected from scrutiny, debate, argument or challenge, then it isn’t worth reading in the first place. Pullman stated that ‘the Gospels do not belong to the Church’ – and he is right. Jesus made it clear anyway that he was for the world, fulfilling what had always been the vocation of Israel: to live and give his life in order that the world might see who and how God is (and respond accordingly). The Bible must be able to stand in the marketplace or it cannot be what it claims to be. Jesus (and the Gospels) cannot be caged by the Church.
- ‘We wouldn’t do this to the Quran’ simply exasperates me. Do we really think Christians should consider emulating the worst of Muslim extremism? As George Pitcher admirably and clearly explained in yesterday’s Telegraph, we shouldn’t confuse the woeful (and often silly) ignorance of secularists and some atheists with some bizarre and inappropriate notion of ‘persecution’.
Christians are in danger of saying by their defensiveness that Christian faith and the Bible itself are so vulnerable that they must not be challenged and must be protected. As I have remarked in an article in the Easter edition of the Radio Times (no link available), we have no reason to be afraid of challenge or scrutiny – Christians need to be a little more confident and a little more intelligent in articulating their faith and their understanding of the story told by the Scriptures. As Pullman pointed out, a Christian notion of ‘inspiration’ is not the same as an Islamic one – but plenty of Christians treat the Bible as if it were.
The answer to Pullman is to write something better and more convincing – not to threaten him. Pullman is at least able and willing to have a reasonable and informed conversation with Christians – unlike some of the New Atheists he is often lumped in with.
Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting ‘take’ on the interface between Christians and atheists in his comment on Peter Tatchell. Worth a look in conjunction with these observations on Christian confidence when in engagement with writers like Philip Pullman.
March 29, 2010
Russia is reeling from the suicide bombings in Moscow, bringing back awful memories of the attacks on London on 7 July 2005. This puts into fresh perspective some of the other nonsense going on in the world and claiming our attention. Interesting to see that tonight’s online Pravda puts this story alongside the problems going on in Gaza and Obama’s nightime visit to Afghanistan. The juxtaposition itself is interesting, but it also says that the local has to be understood in the context of the global – however powerful the local story, it isn’t the only important one. And no mention (at least that I could see) of the ‘chancellors debate’ on UK telly this evening…
I wonder if such debates do anything to change people’s minds ahead of an election. Or is it just another beauty parade in which the ‘star quality’ outweighs argument? I wonder if people listen to the arguments or take their steer from the interpretations offered by the observers online, in broadcast media or in newspapers.
What I did find interesting today was Charles Moore’s review in the Daily Telegraph of Peter Hitchens’ new book about God and his brother (Christopher). In The Rage Against God he takes issue with his brother’s loud atheism and particularly the assumption that to be religious you must be stupid – a mistake made by many of the new atheists. I just thought Moore’s piece was measured, wise and interesting – which is why I thought it welcomed a discussion that generated light rather than heat. Take this, for example:
Surely any dispassionate observation would suggest that utterly brilliant people can be believers, as they can be agnostics or atheists. The Church has not proved the most durable of all the institutions in the history of the world by being stupid. But it is also a key part of Christian understanding that truth is not necessarily discerned by an intellectual elite alone. Christianity’s radical and paradoxical message is that weakness is strength, poverty is wealth, giving is receiving, dying brings life. In the story of the Passion, commemorated this week, the most intelligent person, apart from Jesus himself, is Pontius Pilate. His brain power does not lead him to make the right decisions.
Peter Hitchens’s case is that militant atheists dimly sense this truth, and this is what makes them so angry. If God does not exist, after all, why the rage against him? God’s really unforgivable characteristic is that he is alive and well and quite impervious to the assaults even of people as brilliant as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
(But, as I read after posting this, read George Pitcher for more light on a ‘cross’ issue.)
March 26, 2010
I haven’t exactly been blogging alot in the last few weeks. I haven’t lost my nerve (or my interest), but there hasn’t been time to give attention to it. Loads of meetings, some wonderful visits to wonderful places to meet wonderful people and just a bit of problem stuff. A six-week series of Lent Addresses, a lecture last week on Christianity & the Media, loads of sermons and a Quiet Day tomorrow (Telling Tales: Recovering our Scriptural Nerve): very creative.
But the world isn’t boring, is it?
- Today the USA and Russia have agreed a massive reduction in nuclear missiles/warheads.
- The Pope is under fire, as is his Church, because of historical sexual abuse and a flood of apologies.
- There is about to be regime change in Iraq (again)
- The General Election has all but begun.
- And the future of Rafa Benitez remains uncertain (despite the protestations) – look at the face and behaviour of Gerrard and Torres.
What’s interesting about these matters is that they all have something to do with power.
Mutually Assured Destruction was as mad as it sounds – and now belongs in the 1980s. Post Cold War generations can’t believe that this was ever seriously considered a reasonable approach to global security. So, Obama adds a foreign policy victory to his domestic (health care) achievement of last week and thus puts another question mark over what many Americans understand by ‘freedom’. And about time, too.
The Pope is in a mess, but so is much of the criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The particular criticism I refer to has to do with the knee-jerk stuff about celibacy, homosexuality and priesthood. I don’t believe in celibacy as a dogma (I think my wife is relieved), but it is ludicrous to say that celibacy itself turns priests into paedophiles or abusers. What does that say about single priests whose celibacy is a definite (and often costly) vocation?
Surely the problem is with people who abuse their privileged access (to people), trust and authority to exercise power over vulnerable people. Removing the insistence on celibacy might make some priests happier, but it won’t address the essential problem of those who abuse the power they have – and rightly attract the opprobrium of those who are betrayed. (Bishops asking for ‘forgiveness’ sounds a bit too easy…)
Like everyone else, I feel horror at the abuse exercised by priests over a long period of time. But, seeing Rome squirm is not a reason for vicarious mocking (as is being heard in some quarters); it is a tragedy and a crime and the focus should be on restoring those whose lives have been wrecked by abuse. Both they and the abusers need our prayers, but our prayers should be realistic.
I was reflecting on all this while visiting the excellent Cross Purposes exhibition at Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood, Kent. We went there after visiting All Saints’ Church, Tudeley, the only church in the world to have all the windows decorated by Marc Chagall. The windows are beautiful, powerful, moving and challenging. Go from there to the exhibition at Mascalls and you are confronted by representations of crucifixion that make you stop and stare.
Chagall’s drafts for his Tudeley windows are also there, but it is his Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945) that speaks most arrestingly – even today as we think about power (and its abuse) in all its guises, and especially as we face increasingly confident right-wing parties gaining ground in the forthcoming election. Here’s the picture:
The Jewish Chagall has the crucified Jesus blocking access to the blackened Nazi as ruin lies around. Here we see the confrontation of two contrasting concepts of ‘power’.
One far-right party in England asks (in its attempt to attract naive Christians to its causes): ‘what would Jesus do?’ I think Chagall offers an answer.
March 26, 2010
I’m getting a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. The General Election is coming, the slanging matches have really got going and the trains are going to stop. I lived through the 1970s in Liverpool when striking became a national hobby and it was an embarrassment to be recognised as British abroad. It feels like deja vu.
Well, Darling has given us his budget statement, Osborne has responded, the Lib Dems have said something negative about both of them and there are going to be rail strikes to complement the British Airways stoppages. It is painful. We even heard George Osborne (but he is not alone) talking about fixing ‘broken’ bits of Britain – the Tories use the word so often that it is beginning to look obviously obvious. But he (and they) are extremely thin on offering solutions.
Wouldn’t it be great if the politicians simply told the truth that they have no idea how to fix some things? That some ‘broken’ things cannot be fixed because they would require too much non-existent cash? That we can sling figures around till the cows come home to count them, but we no longer have any sense of what they mean? A couple of years ago £5 billion was an unthinkably huge amount to spend on educating every child in the world; now we speak without blinking of debts amounting to hundreds of billions.
I really wonder if this time the electorate will lose interest completely in the rhetoric and bitchy battles of politicians whose credibility isn’t high anyway. This will be dangerous, though, and I will be among those urging voters to get out and use their votes regardless of their personal apathy or sense of electoral futility. A low turn-out always and only benefits extremists and those who are madly motivated – it is bad for democracy and bad for any sense of civic responsibility.
But, I’ll also hang out for proportional representation to rid us of the ridiculous first-past-the-post system – and will cry out for any party to promise to rid our culture of the ludicrous counter-productive obsession with meaningless ‘targets’, box-ticking inspectors of everything and daily ‘government initiatives ‘ in education. Will any of these guys stop dumping increasing amounts of paper on teachers, governors and just about any other public ‘servants’ (charity trustees, etc) and set us free to recover the point of it all?
I’m not holding my breath.
March 22, 2010
Posted by nickbaines under politics
| Tags: crime
|  Comments
There was an interesting discussion on the Today programme this morning about the visibility (or otherwise) of policing in the UK.
Am I the only one who gets fed up with the Daily Mail-type bleatings about poor policing when this rhetoric wilfully ignores reality? Those who cry out for citizens to take responsibility for their actions must surely also adopt a responsible approach to matters of public import. I’ll explain briefly where I am coming from.
Several years ago I invited the Chief Constable of Leicestershire to address a meeting in the parish where I was the Vicar. It was a bit sexist: it was a monthly men’s group that brought together (that night) around 60 blokes in the pub. The police chief told me later he had assumed he would face hostility and tried to preempt that by explaining his job. He didn’t face hostility, but he did explain his job.
Even then, over a decade ago, he was having to work harder with less. What most people hadn’t realised was that the total number of officers at his disposal had to be divided up into three shifts, also allowing for sickness and holidays. It was not hard to work out then why there could only be two officers at work during a particular night covering a huge area of Leicestershire. It was a bit of an eye-opener.
The second element is that most policing these days is technical, behind the scenes and complex. Anti-terrorism, serious organised crime (in all its forms), internet crime (including sex and finance) and all the other essential long-term detective work is – by definition – unseen by the populace.
So, when people (fired up by the media) complain about the lack of police on the beat or the apparent lack of attention given to ‘small’ crime, they need to ask themselves the following questions:
1. How much in extra tax are they willing to pay in order to recruit, train and retain good police officers?
2. If we wish the police to be more visible and to attend to ‘small’ crime – within current financial limitations – which other areas of hidden police work do we wish them to give up?
3. Do we only trust what we can see or are we adult enough to trust that the police are doing their best with the resources we give them?
4. If we really are serious in wanting police to be on the beat chasing burglars and preventing pickpockets, which element of hidden policing should be sacrificed – and will we then understand when (for example) my identity gets stolen and nothing can be done other than giving me a crime number?
This is all about choices. We rightly demand accountability from the police, but don’t always take responsibility for the constraints we impose upon them. The police don’t always get everything right; they sometimes get a lot wrong. But they can only do what they do with the resources we give them. The call for a serious and comprehensive review of policing is timely: the world has changed and crime has changed with it, but police structures still create expectations that belong to a bygone age.
As with other areas of life (such as wanting Scandinavian-level social care at British-level tax costs), we should either pay more tax or shut up. We simply can’t have what we won’t pay for.
March 20, 2010
Sometimes there is virtue in reading the newspaper the wrong way round – that is, from the back sections through to the frontal news and comment sections. In an interview with film director Peter Greenaway in yesterday’s Guardian, we are asked to conlcude that “there is nothing more to life than sex and death”. Hardly original thinking, but look at what it is based on.
The opening lines of his interview remarks are as follows:
I don’t know much about you,” says Peter Greenaway, sipping his mint tea, “but I do know two things. You were conceived, two people did fuck, and I’m very sorry but you’re going to die. Everything else about you is negotiable.
He then goes on happily (if ignorantly):
…all religion is about death and art’s about life. Religion is there to say: hey, you don’t have to worry – there’s an afterlife. Culture represents the opposite of that – sex. A very stupid Freudian way of looking at it, but one is positive and one is negative.
He’s a great film maker, but clearly a terrible thinker, albeit with fundamentalist tendencies. The dichotomy he draws between art and religion is mindblowingly weird: religion addresses death – how could it not? – but is not an opiate aimed at consoling people with an after-life. Has he not read the Gospels or wondered why they crucified Jesus of Nazareth?
This might be an inconvenient truth, but Christianity (for certain) is very much about the here-and-now – the Church being called (and frequently failing) to be the people who reflect the character of God in order to change the world and its ways. The after-life will have to look after itself while we Christians give our attention to this world into which God has called us. The Incarnation (however else you construe it) is about God opting into the world, not exempting himself from it (in all its unpredictable and unjust messiness). We left Plato behind a long time ago – even if critics of Christianity find that inconvenient.
Art is very much concerned with death as well as life and tries (it seems to me) to address questions of meaning and purpose even when the artist is setting out from a premise that denies the possibility of intrinsic meaning. You simply can’t separate life (and living) from death, art from religion, morality from assumptions about destiny. Peter Greenway has been satisfied with too narrow a prejudice about both art and religion – especially based on a surprising ignorance of Christianity.
But, I also want to defend him. Looking at the scandals of paedophilia addressed (at last!) by the Pope, it is very tempting to write off any idea of the Church having anything to say about a ‘good life’ in this world. But, Greenway is clearly intelligent enough to recognise that that only begins an argument and certainly doesn’t end it.
However, he could also be a good example of what Oliver Burkeman confronts in a superb article in the G2 section of yesterday’s Guardian (which I read after everything else). Although he is subsequently criticised by Adam Rutherford for being too uncritical about the theories he addresses, he does raise some important questions about the discrepancy between the popular and ‘professional’ scientist understanding of Darwinism.
Burkeman reviews several new books which question popular understandings of the implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I am not competent to address the epigenomic science of it, but I do find the thinking about it interesting. Amongst some evolutionary scientists, questioning Darwin or his fundamental theories is inadmissable: the responses evoke memories of stupid fundamentalists in the church refusing to listen to anything that might question the Bible or six-day creation. All Burkeman was doing was saying that it is worth talking about the ‘naturalness’ of theories of natural selection.
Of course, it is not just biology or genetics that are concerned with the questions thrown up by new research; even questions of theology and philosophy arise uninvited. (For example, how, in the light of this, should Christians address questions of sexuality, social justice or bioethics – to name but three for starters?) And it is in these almost incidental asides that I thought Burkeman’s questioning hit the mark. For example:
Leftwing and feminist critics did frequently misinterpret evolutionary psychology, imagining that when scholars described some trait as adaptive, they meant it was morally justifiable.
This is a common sleight of the philosophical hand today when matters of science and meaning are being considered. A ‘phenomenon’ becomes a ‘virtue’ – without any explanation of how the translation was either made or justified. In other words, the mere fact that some human trait adapts does not and cannot confer upon the adaptation any ‘meaning’ (in the sense of attributing purpose). Yet, even those who claim the inadmissability of intrinsic meaning to human (or any other kind of) life go on to speak of Darwinian ‘progress’ as if it had some incontrovertible and inherent justification to it. Hence, Burkeman is right to question whether ‘survival of the fittest’ actually means ‘survival of the survivors’ and can tell us no more than the simple fact that ‘what is, is’.
He illustrates this as follows:
But that was how many such findings – often better described as speculations – came to be believed. We’re not exactly saying it’s right for, say, men to sleep around, evolutionary psychologists would observe with a knowing sigh, but . . . well, good luck trying to change millennia of evolved behaviour.
Burkeman goes on to question just how helpful the ‘nature-nurture’ debate is when the reality of evolution is clearly more complex than an ‘either-or’ choice allows.
You’ll have to read the articles for themselves – including Rutherford’s rejoinder which raises other questions. But I suspect the really interesting debate won’t be about the content of the disagreement between them, but what the debate itself says about the fundamentalsim that exists in some scientific communities who, when they are questioned by informed popular curiosity, resort to the responses they so rightly abhor when offered by religious authorities: don’t worry your little heads about it, for we experts understadn these things and you’ll just have to trust us. Rutherford concludes:
But without fully understanding the issues at hand, it is easy to fall into the trap of regurgitating self-serving controversies. “To an outsider” says Burkeman “this is mind-blowing”. Unfortunately though, to the knowledgeable, it is a disappointing combination of at best misleading distortion, and at worst plain wrongheadedness. Now we have to clean up the mess.
March 18, 2010
I’ve always thought that if there is nothing to say, then there is no point trying to say it. So, I won’t go looking for things to blog about just for the sake of blogging something or anything.
Even watching the wonderful Kop singing again as Liverpool beat Lille at Anfield doesn’t merit too many words – just relieved admiration.
I can’t even be bothered to write about any of the things that are filling my days – from visiting great clergy to creative meetings and lots of speaking engagements via writing commitments. Boredom is not something with which I am threatened.
But I will write about Bob Stumbles. I have never met him, but I have read him and followed him for the last seven years since I came to Croydon and joined the link with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Everything in Zimbabwe was coloured by the shameful betrayal of the Anglican Church by the appalling Nolbert Kunonga, the now-ousted Bishop of Harare.
Kunonga, supported by Robert Mugabe and his self-preserving henchmen, expropriated white farms, supported violence against opponents of Mugabe, saw his diocese as his personal possession, attempted to grab the Province of Central Africa for himself and has spent the last few years intimidating those who no longer recognise him as a bishop.
Kunonga (now followed by the ousted bishop of Manicaland, Elson Jakazi), illegally protected and defended by a craven police force, continues to defy the courts - claiming churches and church property for himself. His supporters intimidate and beat those faithful Anglicans who try to worship in their own churches or communities.
There is currently a case going through the courts in Harare to secure a final judgement in favour of the Province and against the corrupt Kunonga. The recent and current Bishops of Harare (Sebastian Bakare and Chad Gandiya) have shown enormous courage in challenging Kunonga and offering strong leadership to their people in the face of overwhelming odds. The saga continues, as do the relationships with the Dioceses of Southwark and Rochester, with a strong sense of God’s justice and the guts to pray and work for it.
This is not about the church as institution. It is about an abused country, an abused people and a church that gives its own blood to serve the people who suffer under the jackboot of Mugabe’s megalomania.
But the largely unknown hero of this struggle has been a lawyer called Bob Stumbles. As Chancellor of the Diocese of Harare he has challenged Kunonga and Mugabe every step of the way – and at considerable personal cost. Fired by faith in the God of justice and inspired by love for the Anglican Church and its vocation, he has attended to the legal detail of the struggle and remained diligent in the face of all intimidation.
I heard today that Bob Stumbles died of a heart attack yesterday. This is bad news for the church’s struggle – especially while the court case proceeds. But this faithful man deserves honour, respect and love for all he has done. His work is over, but it is essential his legacy does not die with him.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory. And may he never be forgotten when the history books get written.
March 14, 2010
I have been wondering (a) if and (b) how to post responses to two matters this week. I sometimes feel that the dominant language of some public issues is one that belongs to a different ‘empire’ from the one in which reasonable people should feel at home. I fear this won’t be brief, but it will be too brief to avoid a backlash.
The first matter was the media coverage of Dr Maggie Atkinson‘s questioning of the Jamie Bulger case. Dr Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, questioned whether the murderers of Jamie Bulger should have been tried in an adult court and, therefore, whether some children are too young to be considered in the same way as adult criminals. (Phil Ritchie blogged on this recently – well worth a read.) Jamie Bulger’s mother hit the headlines with her call for Dr Atkinson to either resign or be sacked. Fortunately, Dr Atkinson’s position was defended (rather meekly) by some politicians who recognised that it is precisely her job to ask such questions.
It is impossible not to have sympathy with Jamie Bulger’s mother for the appalling loss of her son in such grievous circumstances. But that loss does not legitimise anything Denise Fergus says about the subsequent case or issues associated with it. A society cannot make law simply to satisfy those who have been through terrible injustices. Presumably the Foreign Office doesn’t consult Ken Bigley’s or Margaret Hassan’s families when deciding how to counter/handle the Taleban, Al Quaeda or Iraqi insurgents?
So, why is Denise Fergus’s opinion considered important enough to report as a headline item? I guess one response will be that it will get people to read the story. But, her grievance does not make her views about penal policy any more intelligible than those of anyone else – however awful the experiences that led her to them.
I remember voicing a view such as this on another matter and being castigated that I – “as a bishop” – am out of kilter with public opinion. That response was even more worrying. Yesterday I sat in a room in London where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had ‘gone against the grain of public opinion’ both in England and Germany and taken the Christus Kirche into the Confessing Church in Germany. Sometimes it is vital that people resist public opinion: being a majority does not make you right.
The second issue that has bugged me is the campaign by Ekklesia to embarrass the 26 bishops in the House of Lords into backing a 100% elected second chamber. Inundating the said bishops with emails has been proclaimed some sort of victory, but this is bizarre, even for an organisation not known for underselling its self-regarded achievements. For starters, the numbers of people joining in the campaign (purely electronic) is open to a range of interpretations and readings and cannot be seen to exemplify mass conviction about the place of bishops in the second chamber.
Secondly, I for one do not support a 100% elected chamber – and I do not sit in the House of Lords. (For the record, I have neither desire nor expectation to do so.) But, I have operated in a number of countries around the world where different systems of representation are applied. I have not seen one where the election of a second chamber does not lead to the same sort of short-term partisan political game-playing that we see in the House of Commons. One of the recognised glories of the House of Lords is the ability of experienced and learned people – many of whom would never stand for election – to contribute intelligently and fearlessly to important legislative debate. To sacrifice this on the altar of some narrow and naive assumption about what makes a society ’democratic’ would be absurd – like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It feels a bit like being led by inverse snobbery.
Bishops might either stay or go in the inevitable reforms of the House of Lords. It is also possible that if they stay their numbers will be reduced. I doubt if we will weep either way – we’ll just get on with it like we always do. But I would still argue that bishops of the Church of England are often better informed and better experienced in the realities of all levels of our society than almost any elected politician or unelected Lord. They have representation on the ground in the parishes of the country and know the realities that the clergy and churches live with every day of every week of every year as they serve their local communities. That knowledge – not subject to any electoral advantage – gives a voice in our legislature to all sorts of people who otherwise have no voice. Ekklesia doesn’t like that – doesn’t like bishops and has some weird axe to grind about them.
This isn’t a fundamental reason to retain bishops in a reformed second chamber. But it is worth recognising the potential loss, especially if the rationale for getting rid of them is rooted in some ideological silliness that can only imagine one way of doing things.
Which brings me on to the article advocating a Robin Hood Tax by Rowan Williams and Richard Curtis in today’s Sunday Times. Spotting an opportunity for helping the world’s poorest people and redeeming the bankers at the same time, they conclude with the following:
Are the politicians and financiers ready to commit to reconnecting banking with real life and real need? Are they ready to affirm that we are still, as a society, focused on the development goals spelt out 10 years ago and on eradicating poverty at home? Are they willing to lift their eyes beyond short-term problems and to imagine a world in which those most at risk can be assured of the best resources we can offer them?
The key word in that paragraph is ‘imagine’. I once suggested to a group of City financiers that stochastic modelling is ‘an exercise in imagination’ – positing a range of different scenarios in order to see what emerges from them. The word ‘imagination’ caused some disquiet – I think because it was heard as an ‘exercise in fantasy’. But imagination is not fantasy; rather, it is the ability to conceive of a different way of being and ordering and having the courage to see if we can make it happen. Imagination is a crucial element of the prophet’s psyche, the poet’s vision and the planner’s potential. Lack of imagination condemns us to repeating the same old models of doing things – even if they haven’t always served us as well as we like (romantically) to think in retrospect.
The criminal justice system might need to have the courage to think imaginatively about how to treat children who commit appalling crimes: to refuse to ask the questions for fear of public scolding is to cave in to a very unhealthy sort of power. Campaigners for democratic change might like to think out of their ideological boxes and imagine more than one way of squaring the circles that bother them. Bankers and governments will need courage to think creatively about re-shaping the global financial relationships according to different values.
It might not come as a surprise that Jesus asked for a ‘repentance’ – literally a change of ‘mind’ – from those who might imagine a differently-shaped world. This went down so well that they crucified him. Public opinion might not always ‘get it’, but an imagination such as ‘the Kingdom of God’ seems to have been going for a very long time and certainly longer than the empires that tried to kill it off.
March 12, 2010
It has been a strange week. Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque and head of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Sunni Islam’s pre-eminent centre of learning), died on Wednesday 10 March while staying in Saudi Arabia. Tantawi was an enigmatic man – but be careful of quotations taken out of context - and one of courage and vision. He was one of Islam’s leading spiritual authorities to champion Islamic moderation across the globe – incurring the wrath of Muslims who took a more militant approach to their faith. A good obituary can be found in the Guardian.
I met Tantawi several times in Kazakhstan at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. He was always rather inscrutable, but he handled challenge extremely well. In July 2009 when the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, stood to speak – driving the Iranian delegation to loudly evacuate the room – he maintained his presence and took what could have been seen as provocation in his stride (at least publicly). Several years ago he refused to rise to the deliberate provocation by Chief Rabbi Metzger and maintained his position. Whatever differences some of us might have had with some of his views, he certainly gained respect by his behaviour in such circumstances.
Tantawi will be missed. It will be interesting to see if his shoes will be filled by someone of equal spiritual authority, political wisdom and personal courage. Moderate Islam needs it and so does the rest of the world.
Last night I went from ruminating on Tantawi to the presentation by the Russian Ambassador to Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Russian Order of Friendship, for his “outstanding contribution to the cooperation and friendly relations between Russia and the UK”. The Archbishop
The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Mr Yury Fedotov, who said “What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.” Dr Williams is hugely respected in Russia for his interest in and mastery of Russian religious philosophy. He has written and spoken widely throughout his career, notably in his doctoral thesis on the theology of Vladimir Lossky, on Sergii Bulgakov (Towards a Russian Political Theology, 1999), and his recent book on Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction , 2008).
It was – as they say – a good gig at the Residence of the Russian Ambassador in London. The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr Yury Fedotov, who said
What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.
Rowan responded with (as usual) an erudite and witty speech (without notes), remarking that:
The depths and challenges of the Russian world have continued to play a crucial part in my own life, in my mind and in my heart… It is a very special personal honour, and an immense personal privilege to be recognised in this way so unexpectedly.
My wife and I went to support Rowan, but also because I continue to be intrigued by what Rowan referred to as “the new Russia still being built”. My own background in Russian language and politics was something best kept quiet about, but it was a really good evening among some very interesting and nice people. The Russian diplomatic hosts were generous, welcoming and open to all the questions I (at least) asked. A nice touch came at the end when the Director of the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature, Dr Ekaterina Genieva, surprised the Archbishop with the presentation of a special bilingual edition of his selected poems printed in Moscow for the occasion. All guests came away with a signed copy – and I am already struggling with the Russian translations. I have forgotten too much…
Just for the record, my conversations with Rowan about Russia have usually ended up with me being embarrassed. After a dinner several years ago during which we discussed Zimbabwe, we eventually got on to Russian literature. I could blag my way through Tolstoy, Lermontov and Turgenev, but then blew my cover with Dostoyevsky. I mentioned that I had attempted Crime and Punishment three times and never got beyond page 82: it was boring and nothing seemed to happen except in the head of the ‘hero’. After a short – pregnant – silence Rowan said: “I’m about to write a book on Dostoyevsky…”
I’m sure he’s been suspicious of me ever since…
I decided that my next conversation had better be a bit better informed. So I have now read everything Dostoyevsky wrote – OK, I’ve got the last half of The Brothers Karamazov to finish.
March 10, 2010
You have to stand around Jerusalem to see the offence of the settlements. The word ‘settlement’ sounds like a few houses clustered together – isolated and defenceless. But then you look over the valley and see hundreds of solid buildings, home to thousands of people who are occupying land that does not belong to them.
The problem is, however, that the settlers and their backers believe all the land is theirs, regardless of international agreements, legal ownership and humanitarian concern. Rights transcend justice, mercy is trumped by power.
When even the American Vice-President is complaining openly about Israeli behaviour, you know the patience is running thin. No doubt he will now incur the wrath of those who accuse of anti-semitism anyone who dares to question Israeli policy. But the provocative permission for the building of 1,600 homes on Palestinian land, agreed while Joe Biden is visiting the country and in the face of tentative moves towards talks about ‘peace’, looks like a deliberate gesture of power.
I have had several conversations with people recently who believe that God has given Israel the land – all of it – and that, therefore, the notion of ‘illegality’ in relation to occupation is a semantic nonsense. If the Israelis build a settlement in Palestinian territory, then this is their right and no one can complain without complaining about God himself.
So, what of God and justice and humility and the vocation of God’s people?
The complaint of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets against the people was that they took God for granted. They compromised their vocation to be the people who ‘look like’ God by looking nothing like the God they claimed to worship. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos. ‘You can’t claim God’s name in your worship and then trample on the heads of the poor; you can’t pretend to love God and then treat justice as a product to be bought and owned; you can’t claim the favour of God and at the same time show none of the mercy that characterises your God.’
The warning of the prophets is clear: empires come and go. God will not be taken for granted. Justice will be brought against those who deny justice to others. Those who bear God’s name must reflect the character of God – who claims to be the liberator of those who suffer injustice. And judgement (not just charity) begins at home.
The tragedy of all this is that the legitimate case for Israeli integrity and security is undermined by the injustices to which they subject their neighbours. But, it seems that even their friends are too afraid to warn them and defiance of world opinion continues brazenly – apparently without fear of challenge.
Maybe Joe Biden is about to change that?
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