The body of Muammar Gaddafi is in cold-storage in Misrata. It is unclear how exactly he died because different people keep giving different accounts of his capture and death. What we do know is that people are queuing up to see the corpse with their own eyes, to take photos and celebrate that he has gone.

And what is wrong with that? Another example of liberal Western sensitivity that hates to see blood and is too wet or squeamish to be happy at the departure of a tyrant?

The world cannot be worse off without Gaddafi holding any power. The madman is now gone for ever and his tyrannical empire is shattered. Good.

But, as long as we think the rule of law is essential to any civilised or governable democratic society, we cannot pick and choose when the rule of law should apply. Gaddafi’s brutality might well provoke a vengeful response from those who suffered, but suffering does not justify sidelining the rule of law when personally convenient. If we want Robert Mugabe to be held to account by the rule of law which he has abandoned in Zimbabwe, we have to hold to its universality. We cannot hold him to it while allowing others to dismiss it in acts of vengeance. A greater deterrent to other dictators would have been to see Gaddafi and his sons in court, not in fridges.

A civilised society must always see the human body as more than just ‘stuff’. That’s why we bury our dead with dignity. That’s why we don’t just chuck our loved ones into the sea as if the body meant nothing once the life has left it. The body matters.

So, what does it say to us and our children when we glory in the brutalised and torn body of another human being? Is it justified by voyeurism? Or vengeance? Or does it represent a more worrying and capricious reduction of human value?

Muammar Gaddafi was an execrable tyrant who caused misery to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But, using that fact to justify summary execution, physical torture, desecration of a body bodes ill for when we want to argue that bodies are to be honoured, torture to be rejected, murder to be abhorred. We can’t pick and choose when the rule of law is to apply.

1. Jamie Oliver is one of the top ten geniuses of our world. Die Zeit says so.

2. Our ethics are a mess. Prominent newspapers in Britain are proud to show Gadaffi’s dead head on the front pages along with a message of revenge? Which particular ethic are we trying to teach our children here?

3. We always knew he was an evil nutcase anyway – which was why we never did business with him. Obviously.

4. Bankrupt Greece is hanging on for an awful long time. Or, at least, being hung onto for reasons which are debatable.

5. It’s hard trying to work out what to do when anti-capitalists occupy the front of your cathedral.

6. The nights are fair drawing in.

7. The scandal of Hillsborough and the injustice to the bereaved looks soon to be illuminated. The truth will always out…

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just brilliant.

9. The National Media Museum in Bradford is wonderful and should be visited by everyone. Yes, everyone.

10. I can finally have a day off tomorrow.

 

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.

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.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Bradford

The massive storm we have witnessed here in Philadelphia on the last day of our holiday is nothing compared to the storm of violence now raining down on Tripoli as the battle for freedom from Gaddafi’s rule enters it’s endgame. As with other similar struggles in the Middle East in the last six months, however, the question will soon move from ‘What do we want to be freed from?’ to ‘What have we been freed for?’

The distinction is important. It is easier to unite against a common enemy (or evil) than to unite for a common goal. It is easier (and more therapeutic) to pull down than it is to build up. Yet, we human beings seem to find it hard to learn the lessons of history that destruction is easier than construction.


Which is not to criticise the rebels in Libya – they have shown extraordinary courage, backed by NATO bombs, in challenging the regime’s brutality. A similar respect is due in Syria. But, the courage of the present will need to be re-energised and re-directed for building the post-conflict peace that lies ahead. If we are praying now, God knows we must pray even harder in the months and years to come – especially when our attention (and that of a hungry media) has moved on.

For the purposes of this post, however, the point is not primarily about uprisings; rather, it is about the distinction between ‘from’ and ‘for’. In fact, the thought was sparked by an excellent article by Bishop Tom Wright in today’s Spectator online magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/7174863/keep-the-faith.thtml.

Defending the Church of England against the uncritical media mantra of decline and extinction, he summarises the role of the Church as follows:

“It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.”

I have offered a summary elsewhere as: “The Church is called to look and feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. If we don’t, we are a fraud.”

But the key point in Tom’s piece (also picking up nicely on David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Atheist Delusions’, which I am reading here) is that “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world”. A popular critique of the church is that it indulges itself in some otherworldly preoccupations while the real (material) world deals with the real business. Yet, the Incarnation itself is about God opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. You can’t get more material – or less superspiritual – than that.

Christians do not seek escape from the world and all it’s complexities, but commit consciously to engage with it in all it’s messy contradictoriness. It might not be comfortable, but neither was the cross.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song (are there any that aren’t great?) that begins with the line:

Knots in my muscles, too much traffic in my mind, traffic in my mind…

That just about sums up the inside of my head, too. While the world goes mad (US brinkmanship regarding debt ceilings, Libyan contortions, Syrian massacres, Zimbabwean injustices, deepening exposure of media corruption, England beating India at cricket…) life carries on as normal for most of us. For me that means huge investment of time in getting to know the people and places within the boundaries of the Diocese of Bradford. It is both encouraging and challenging, but it also raises huge questions about future development.

It also makes it difficult to sleep. Not because I am worried – I am not. Not because there is too much going on – although there might be. It’s simply because my head is full and alive with questions, thoughts, options, imaginings. All good stuff, but, in Cockburn’s words, “too much traffic in my mind”.

Questions like:

    1. How can the Church best serve the deverse communities of urban, suburban and rural West Yorkshire and the Dales?
    2. How can clergy best be deployed, supported, resourced and led in leading their churches and parishes?
    3. What will be the pros and cons of dissolving three dioceses and creating one new one (where the pros so far well outweigh the cons, in my mind)?
    4. How do we best capture the public imagination with the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ for all people?
    5. How do we best allocate our resources in order to enable us to achieve our vision: to enable the church to resemble the Jesus we read about in the Gospels – to be a sign of the presence of God in the messy world?

    Nothing new or radical there, but the actual realities of a new (for me) context raise them in new forms and in different colours and with changing urgencies. So, life is not boring. The questions that look general have to be addressed in the light of the particular, and that is where it gets tough/interesting/challenging/stimulating.

There are other questions, of course:

  1. When will American politicians learn that their ideological intransigencies make for a dangerous game in a contingent world where most of us wish they would grow up and learn the art of compromise for the common good? Or at least learn a vocabulary that isn’t automatically inspired by the demonising of ‘the other’?
  2. Why did we ever get involved in Libya and why did we decide to back the rebels before they even have popular legitimacy there? Did we learn nothing from Iraq?
  3. What legitimacy does the UN (or the ‘international community’) have when Syria just ignores ‘demands’ that they stop killing civilians with heavy weaponry?
  4. When will African leaders (particularly in SADC) take responsibility for insisting on the rule of law in Zimbabwe where Mugabe increases his snook-cocking at his subjects, uses the police as his personal judiciary and allows the nightmare (and profoundly dim) Nolbert Kunonga to terrorise the Anglican Church there?
  5. Who cares about cricket? I never did understand it. Roll on the footie season…

Oh dear…

Preparing to move from Croydon to Bradford at the end of April, I am conscious of the discontinuities that make life interesting. In Rumsfeldian terms, I am moving from a particular set of knowns and unknowns to a different set of known unknowns and straightforward unknowns.

What interests me about this is something that underlies much of the language we use to explain the news. There seems to be an underlying assumption (or desperate hope?) that there is a pattern to be followed, an outcome to be assumed and a ‘plan’ to be conformed to. Somewhere. Somehow.

Human beings seem to be wired for pattern. Maybe part of the notion of the Imago Dei (being made in the image of God) is the instinct to bring order out of chaos – or, at least, to think that order should be brought out of chaos. Whether with telephone numbers (doubles or triples?) or travel directions, we look for pattern and shape and order.

But, the truth of the matter is: despite the best preparation and the fullest briefings, we have no idea what might happen tomorrow. The outcome in Libya will be shaped by decisions and dynamics that can’t be fully predicted because they are made or shaped by people – and people do strange things sometimes. I have little idea of what awaits me in Bradford (other than in structural terms) because it is hard to be categorical where people are concerned – and people change their minds, behave irrationally in certain (unpredictable) circumstances and have an infinite capacity for surprise.

It might be helpful to the rest of us if politicians and journalists (in particular) left a little space for the unpredictability of life and the inconsistency of human agents – especially where the ‘observer’ becomes ‘agent’ and changes the context. Read any political biography and we realise that what was presented as intended outcome was really a jammy confluence of factors that brought a certain ‘orderliness’ to otherwise random events. Utopia is a fantasy – as is the notion that we are masters of our chosen destiny (rather than constantly surprised by events beyond our control).

And the difference between this fantasy and what is known as the Kingdom of God is simply that the latter takes human agency seriously. Wherever order is sought, chaos is not far behind… and chaos can always be wrested from the jaws of order. Equally, however, what looks inevitable can be transformed by the surprise of hope.

In other words, we just have to get on with whatever is presented to us. In my case, I have to work with what I find and (yes, on the basis of previous experience and the wisdom acquired from it) go from where we really are to where we might realistically become… and put up with whatever good or bad stuff shapes the journey. That’s what makes it all so interesting.

This reminds me of the great Bruce Cockburn song Pacing the Cage in which he says:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend.
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.

Spot on, Bruce. And that reminds me of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who, after being given a hard time by a group of us in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem some years ago, banged the table and said:

Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.