Having had a big needle in my shoulder yesterday, I followed the Syria crisis developments without knowing whether to or how to respond. So much has been said and is being said that adding to it seems pointless. Nevertheless, ahead of the debate in the UK Parliament yesterday, Dr Charles Reed offered a concise elucidation of 'just war theory' (in a series of short blog posts) in order to provide a framework for ethical thinking in relation to the decisions to be made.

No one doubts the seriousness of the issue, and any sign of gloating over David Cameron's 'humiliation' in the House of Commons last night simply demonstrates the ethical confusion that is around. The debate seemed – to me, at least – to revolve around pragmatic questions of achievability rather than questions of ethical consistency. And that is not a criticism. It was not clear what the objective of military action should be and, if done, how its effectiveness might be gauged.

Perhaps these questions focus the matter a little more sharply:

  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad's military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using 'conventional' weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by 'exceptional circumstances'?

Contrary to some assertions in the last few weeks, chemical weapons have been used more recently. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds. I seem to remember that it was the West that funded and equipped Saddam during the 1980s when our later enemy was our friend because he opposed our then enemy Iran. Can someone remind me who paid for the chemical weapons and who supplied them?

It seems to me that democracy worked last night and for that we should be grateful. Recriminations for political decisions should not take our eye away from what is happening to innocent people in Syria. The regime is behaving barbarically, but so are the rebels. As in the 1980s with Iran and Iraq, taking a short-term approach to funding, equipping and supporting one faction (Islamist fundamentalists, for example) now will lead inexorably to further injustices, cruelties and problems later. That is what history tells us, but what we find hard to learn.

David Cameron's political misjudgement or humiliation is irrelevant. The point of this whole business is how to find an effective way of galvanising international power to bring an end to the brutal civil war in Syria. Our MPs have reflected what seems to be the mood of the country – which, of course, doesn't make it right – and declined the use of military force by the UK. So, what is now their alternative strategy? My guess is that it lies somewhere in diplomatic battles with Russia, China and Iran – however difficult that may be. And Obama must decide, having taken a longer-term view, what will be most effective rather than what might make the USA look strong. This is about Syria, not the political power of 'us' and 'ours'.

In conclusion, I just wonder how those who now 'humiliate' David Cameron would be reacting if Tony Blair's 'winning the vote' over Iraq had equally failed. Would we then have praised the power of democracy – or would we have called for his head for having put his case to Parliament and failed? I would give Cameron some space: he is asking the right questions and they have not gone away just because the UK has vetoed the possible use of our forces in an intervention.


Following my post and the appeal we launched in Bradford for the Christians of Northern Sudan, at last the matter has hit the public radar.

Many in Bradford were bewildered why the UK media made no mention of the horrors in Northern Sudan, and some even doubted the veracity of the story on the grounds that ‘if it were true, it would be in the papers’. US media covered the story from the beginning.

The FCO issued a statement in response to a parliamentary question on 11 June. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made a statement and President Obama has gone big on it. The matter is now on the agenda. It wasn’t easy getting it there.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on South Kordofan, Sudan

From Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has released the following statement regarding recent violence in South Kordofan, Sudan:

“Along with the Christian leaders represented in the Sudan Ecumenical Forum and Council of Churches and many more throughout the world, we deplore the mounting level of aggression and bloodshed in South Kordofan State and the indiscriminate violence on the part of government troops against civilians. Numerous villages have been bombed. More than 53,000 people have been driven from their homes. The new Anglican cathedral in Kadugli has been burned down. UN personnel in the capital, Kadugli, are confined to their compound and are unable to protect civilians; the city has been overrun by the army, and heavy force is being used by government troops to subdue militias in the area, with dire results for local people. Many brutal killings are being reported.

This violence is a major threat to the stability of Sudan just as the new state of South Sudan is coming into being. The humanitarian challenge is already great, and the risk of another Darfur situation, with civilian populations at the mercy of government-supported terror, is a real one.

International awareness of this situation is essential. The UN Security Council, the EU, the Arab League and the African Union need to co-operate in guaranteeing humanitarian access and safety for citizens, and we hope that our own government, which has declared its commitment to a peaceful future for Sudan, will play an important part in this.”

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.

Nuff said.

(But, as I read after posting this, read George Pitcher for more light on a ‘cross’ issue.)

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.

One of the benefits of having a bit of a break is that when the tiredness wears off, you get the space to reflect on the past and think things through more clearly than is possible in the cauldron of immediate demand.

But, this also has a worrying, if not slightly depressing, element. I keep remembering things I have done and (more embarrasingly) said that I wish I hadn’t. I wonder how many people I have needlessly offended during my half-century of life. I wonder how often I have been misunderstood because of what I have said or done. And I cringe at things that probably now stick to any memory of me held by people who were on the wrong end of my opinions, judgements or statements. Like the shark in Jaws emerging when you least expect it to (ignore the give-away drumbeat), these memories pop up above the surface and cause me to wince.

However, this only demonstrates that growing up can’t be done without the growing up. The mistakes are what we learn from – and we also gradually learn that we can’t fix everything we have ever got wrong. Yet, recognising the failures at least maintains a degree of humility. Being human means an awful lot of looking back and wincing.

It is this ‘being human’ stuff that’s bothering me during my ‘reflective’ time. Take a couple of examples:

  • Obama makes his first State of the Union address amid the opprobrium of those who know they could do his job better. Critics – some of whom have done nothing for the ‘common good’ other than take other people apart – scream how disappointed they are in him, how all the hopes of a year ago have been dashed.

One year. In the context of eternity that is not… er … a long time. People make unrealistic demands of leaders, then pull them down when they fail in one or two areas. Some of the hopes put into Obama were stupidly unrealistic and he was bound to disappoint before he even started.

  • Inequality between the richest and poorest has grown in the UK in the last forty years. The Tories scorn Labour’s record of the last 13 years, ignoring that the ratio went from 3-4 under Thatcher and the Tories. Harriet Harman went on BBC Radio 4 and made a statement of the blindingly obvious, but ignored by politicians and media: it takes generations to change cultures and behaviours, not a year or two within an electoral cycle that demands short-term gains for political advantage.

Harman is right. Such initiatives as Sure Start have made a massive difference to many children and families, but the benefits will not be seen until the behavioural expectations have run through a generation or two. The problem of getting a young man into meaningful employment when he is the third or fourth generation of unemployed men in his family circle is not one that is merely practical: it means changing a mindset of both community and individual over a long period of time.

This is not a party-political point; rather, it is an expression of frustration that our politics don’t encourage generational policy-making or long-term thinking because the electorate will want instant results and the popular media will encourage them to expect them. And then we are surprised or offended when we find our political leaders apparently making decisions for reasons of political expediency rather than the effective achievement of long-term goals (that might take three, four or even five electoral terms to even begin to work through). Instead, we rubbish those we don’t like, set ourselves up as the competent alternative, then prepare our excuses in advance when the ‘real world’  hits us.

Which is probably why so many people are sceptical of the competence or integrity of all politicians. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is more complex than we sometimes like to admit.

What is really scary, however, is the dehumanising of the people involved in politics and public life. Which, perhaps surprisingly, brings us to Brangelina.

I don’t know Brad Pitt and I don’t fancy Angelina Jolie. But I do know that they are married and have six children in their care. Yet international sport dictates that every detail of their private life and marital strife is available for public consumption and entertainment. And all this probably puts more pressure on the marriage.

It appears that we will only be satisfied when the marriage breaks up, Brad goes back to Jen (!), the kids grow up needing psychotherapy (but at least will be able to make a career from telling their story to the world) and we can all pass judgement on the people involved. Then we can move on to the next celebrity disaster and exploit our self-righteous voyeurism again – a sort of anaesthetic against dealing with our own human weaknesses, perhaps?

Call me naive, but I wonder about the human beings caught up in all this. I wonder about the dehumanising abuse we heap on those we can blame for whatever it is we don’t like about our lives or the world we live in. We can project our nastiness onto those we know cannot hit back.

I look back with horror on the cringy things I have said and done throughout my life. And that is only the things I do remember – there is probably much I have forgotten. But I thank God for those who let me make mistakes and forgave me, knowing that you have to take a long-term view and allow people the freedom – the space – to grow up and change and re-shape… and not be nailed to a reputation that belongs to the past.

I think it was Jesus who said that we can only expect forgiveness if we first forgive. And I guess we can only expect kindness and generosity if first we practise the discipline of being kind, generous and spacious to those we know to be failing. If we want a humane society, shouldn’t we first be prepared to live humanely?

NHS signThe debate keeps going and the blogosphere is pregnant with people telling their stories.

Would anyone in the USA have the vision to copy to every member of their legislature and every State Governor a copy of the blog by Strawberry (which has clearly gone viral) and the comments that follow it? It tells its own story.

Or would the facts simply spoil a bit of ideological propaganda that steers the selfish, individualistic dogma of Republican America?

I hope Obama has the prophetic courage to keep going.

I’ve found a cafe in Kendal that has wi-fi if you buy a drink. I’ll be buying loads. The sky is emptying its load on the old town and walking in the hills is not an option.

What I love about holidays is the sense of perspective you get from stopping, reading, sleeping and thinking… all without the pressure of the next deadline or the next appointment. It frees the mind and lifts the soul. But is also sends me back into questioning my memories – which I’ll explain in a moment.

So far I have read Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father and am nearly half way through Philip Norman’s excellent John Lennon: The Life. What both books demonstrate is the complexity of any individual life. Obama’s search for his origins and his evolving ruminations on his own identity are beautifully recorded; but it is the emotive power of his emerging questioning that impresses most. I read this wonderful book reflecting constantly on how impenetrably and (ultimately) unresolvably the identity of any human being is constructed – shaped both by nature and nurture.

This makes me even more suspicious of the drive we all seem to have to categorise people or force them into conforming to a particular anthropological ‘shape’. What often looks ‘good’ always turns out to have a dark side, and vice versa probably. The oft-lauded community and extended family character of African society is shadowed by the lack of responsibility it engenders in favour of dependence on (or exploitation of) the ‘head’ (which means ‘most successful or affluent’) of the clan. Obama confronts this and it is hard to hear his speech in Ghana a week or tow ago without reflecting on his own experience in Kenya as it is recorded in the book.

Obama reflects on the origins of humanity in the Rift Valley and comments: ‘If only we could remember that first common step, that first common word – that time before Babel’ (p.357). Wherever human division manifests itself in all its greedy and self-promoting pettiness, that question needs to be heard.

I’ll come back to that in another post. But the thing about John Lennon is that Norman’s description of Lennon’s school days involves a roll call of people and places I grew up with. I also went to get my hair cut by Harry Bioletti at Penny Lane. Mr Burrows, formerly his English teacher at Quarry Bank, also taught me at the Holt Comprehensive. I remember him showing us an exercise book of poetry and doodlings by John Lennon, but this memory has been questioned by people who think I must be making it up. Philip Norman records it and my own doubts can be put to one side.

Lennon was complex, too. Reading about him, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the complexity of his own upbringing, loves and losses. If such a mess can be made of one individual, how is it possible to generalise about anybody?

I actually think this is something Jesus rumbled in the Gospels – in the face of opposition from those who found that categorising people (in their own interests, of course) was politically or religiously more useful.

But for now, back to the valley where we don’t even have mobile phone signals…

I have just scanned the news and four things jump out as having something significant in common: David and Samantha Cameron’s son Ivan died last night at the age of 6; the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have published a superb and strongly-worded condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and announced a day of prayer and fasting (as well as giving cash); a plane has crashed in Amsterdam; Obama has addressed his people with a strong encouragement that America will emerge from its problems eventually.

The thing that links these four ‘items’ is the fact that whether we are talking about a single family or a whole nation, a community of travellers or a starving and oppressed people, every individual counts. Millions of people die every day – most of them too young and most of them utterably avoidably. Over four million people have died in the Congo. Zimbabwe, with which I mostdeeply connected, is suffering terribly both from its own internal problems of misrule and corruption, but also from the neglect from elsewhere in Africa to do anything about Mugabe. But, when millions die unnecessarily every day, why does the death of one person hit the main headline?

Anyone who has done pastoral work – especially in contexts of bereavement – knows that the death of someone close makes the rest of the world disappear. A million may die, but each individual has a network of family and friends that is unique and irreplaceable. One death changes the whole world for a load of other people. Zimbabwe rightly disappears from view when your own child dies. When I read about the suffering in Zimbabwe, I don’t think of an amorphous mass of people who look the same; rather, I see the faces and hear the voices of particular people in particular contexts with particular challenges.

Obama is rightly telling people the truth: there is no quick fix and some people are going to suffer before things get better. There can be no hiding from that truth. But, we need to recover our ability to take a long-term view and re-shape the world slowly, step by step, at every level from the macro (government, banking, fiscal systems, etc) to the micro (looking after my neighbour who is suffering or in need). Obama sounds increasingly like one of the perceptive and brave Old Testament prophets.

The Cameron family will, I hope, withdraw from the world and grieve fully and properly for the loss of their son who was profoundly vulnerable during his short life. I hope they will be given the space to come to terms with the fact that the whole world has changed and other people can handle the Party and our economic challenges while they take the space to love and be loved.

Zimbabwe needs our love and anger and action. I hope many will give to the Archbishops’ Appeal – not because this is a tidy way of salving the post-colonialist conscience, but because the need is immediate and great and bigger than the niceties of my particular feelings about how they have got into this mess and who is responsible for it. My conscience or analysis does not matter a great deal to the parents of the child in Gweru who is not eating, not going to school and in danger of suffering from Cholera.

Every human being is made in the image of God and is infinitely valuable. Some of us have to hold the tension between the macro and the micro, but the shock of the macro (Zimbabwe) should never minimise the trauma of the micro (the death of one person such as Ivan Cameron-  RIP).

I can’t believe what I have been reading in the newspapers today. The Times led on Obama’s inaugural speech, observing that it wasn’t his best. Apparently, he did not rise to the heights of rhetoric we have come to expect.

What sort of pompous irrelevant nonsense is this? I realise that journalists need to adopt observer status, but how detached do you have to be to think that judgement on the entertainment value of his speech is of the highest priority?

Obama faces some of the most difficult and testing crises of any US President in the last century and used his inaugural speech to issue a sobering reality check amid the euphoria surrounding his accession to power. He did the right thing in not winding people up with the inspiring cadences of rhetorical manipulation – had he done so, the same journalists would have criticised him for being triumphalistic or arrogant in the face of the challenges being faced by ordinary Americans and people around the world.

Obama got it right. He was sober and frank. He told people the situation is tough and will be both demanding and costly. He showed resolution and commitment. But he forced people to be realistic and to leave behind the fantasies that have driven the generalities propogated by his predecessor. The times are tough and the situation serious; this demanded a serious and measured initial statement. And that is what Obama gave the world.

Times journalists can think what they want about his speech. They can even give him stars or marks out of ten, if it makes them feel better. But – frankly – who cares what they think when the guy in question is doing the business. It costs the critics nothing to write their judgements on the speech of a man who has just assumed the mantle of overwhelming responsibility. Why don’t the journalists consider the relative poverty of their pontifications and let us make our own minds up?