Thursday, August 25th, 2011


Holiday over. Back in the office. Back on my laptop where I can embed links in my posts. It’s also back to viewing the world from home (as opposed to ‘away’).

As the Libya endgame continues, there is a good deal of comment in the blogosphere about the role of the National Transitional Council, NATO, foreign governments, etc. Much of it involves urging caution and questioning NATO’s involvement – approving the end whilst worrying about the means… and the potential consequences. EthicalComment has some good post-holiday observations (as usual) and some useful links to, for example, Chatham House papers.

I was intrigued to catch up with Tony Blair’s reflections on the UK riots. I know too many people who would disagree with Blair on principle even if he said the sky was blue; but, I think he is absolutely right to question the reflex of British politicians, religious leaders and media commentators to blame some sort of generalised moral decline for the riots. Whilst agreeing with Michael White’s critique of the inadequacy of Blair’s critique, I still think he was right to assert (initially when Prime Minister) that specific problems need specific solutions – that the dysfunctionality of some families requires systematic, one-at-a-time, targeted investment of time, expertise and accompaniment to turn around those dysfunctionalities that are deeply embedded in family culture, experience or expectation.

The problem, of course, is that one of the most valuable resources to achieve that end – and one that was making a demonstrable difference to many families – is being severely cut back: Sure Start. Ask any health professional working with such families and they will almost universally tell the same story. David Cameron has trumpeted the percentage increase in health visitors (my wife is one), but the health visitors need resources such as Sure Start to which they can refer their people. There is surely an irony that financial investment in youth provision and resources for supporting families is being severely cut at the very time that the decision-makers are complaining about the dysfunctionality of some of our citizens.

(And, yes, Blair helped to develop the consumer-greedy society that Thatcher began; and, yes, that introduces a further debate about public morality and the shaping of our culture in the last thirty years. But, it doesn’t setract from the significance of the specific point about the so-called ‘hard to reach’.)

This is not just about financial investment and my observation is not about ideology – that somehow chucking money at problems solves the problem. But, it is crazy to cut funding of those resources that are designed to make a long-term difference, but have already made short-term improvements.

Which leads on to the third element of these post-holiday thoughts: the teaching of Religious Education in schools. Again, some commentators will automatically reach for their red ink at the mere mention of religious education having any value at all. They think that their own world view is neutral and that religous world views are somewhere up the loony scale, heading away from neutral. Such respondents should read David Bentley Hart‘s excoriating expose of such shallow thinking in The Atheist Delusions – an academically informed response to the assumptions and ill-informed sweeping assertions of the so-called New Atheists. (Obviously, it’s a bit of a shame to introduce fact and history into these debates…)

However, what is often ignored is that Religious Education does not start from the assumption that a particular religious ‘truth’ needs to be propagated, but, rather, that children and young people need to learn (a) how to think about what they think about the world, (b) how particular traditions have developed ways of doing this through particular histories, and (c) why understanding epistemology – how we know that we know what we know – matters. Surely, this should be indisputable in post-riot England. Yes, I believe that the Christian world view makes most sense of the world, human experience, morality, etc.; but, that is secondary to the importance of at least getting kids to (a) ask the right questions and (b) understand that asking these questions actually matters.

To that end I agree that the teaching of RE should continue to be a core subject in the school curriculum. If it isn’t, what will be saying to the riots of twenty years from now when faced with dysfunctional kids whose morality was allowed to be shaped by happenstance and serendipity rather than being shaped and informed to the extent that they can make their mind up?

It is unsurprising that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome the way he did:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

We continue to neglect the shaping of the mind at our future peril.

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It looks like Gaddafi is on the run with his sons – who must be feeling awfully cheated out of their inheritance. It has been clear for years that their father is – how can we put it politely?- delusional. Those journalists who have met him say that he is lucid one minute and ramblingly incomprehensible the next. (Mind you, he’s not alone in that…)

In his latest (and last) broadcast message to ‘his’ people he said he will fight to win or become a martyr. Interesting use of an over-used word: martyr.

The word comes from the Greek and means ‘a witness’ – that is, one who bears witness to truth that cannot be denied. So, what does Gaddafi think he is a witness of? To which values does he bear witness? To self-aggrandisement, power, hubris, cruelty, domination and rule by fear? Thus, a martyr to delusion and illusion?


Didn’t someone once say, “Blessed are the meek…”? Didn’t that same person grasp the truth that the truth sets you – and, therefore, everyone else – free? And didn’t he propose – against the ridicule of the power-merchants – that rejection of power for it’s own sake is essential… that a cross is preferable to feeding Number one by turning stones into bread for the sake of one’s own security?

I read (on Twitter, I think) that the draft constitution for the putative new Libya owes much to Jesus and Locke. I guess we’ll see.

However, whatever else happens, we need to recover the word ‘martyr’ from its religious misappropriation and its common cheapening in vernacular parlance. Simply dying to make a point is not in any sense ‘martyrdom’. It might be dramatic and it might even be thought heroic. But, if people like Gaddafi think that going down in a hail of bullets as someone ‘sincere’ or ‘passionately committed’ to his cause will somehow mark him down in history as a noble victim, he is going to get a bit of a shock. Posterity will ridicule misguided and hubristic tyranny, not venerate its sincerity.

It’s one of the odder aspects of today’s world that people still say that “as long as you believe in something with sincerity”, that’s OK. Think Stalin. Think Hitler. Think Saddam. Think Robert Mugabe. Think Gaddafi.

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Location:Bradford