This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, following the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and in the light of increasing numbers of post-Brexit racist attacks in the UK:

“How long, O Lord, how long?” is the three thousand year old cry of a Hebrew poet – not an expression of misery from England football fans. It is a cry that burns in the heart and sometimes escapes the lips of those who look at the world and weep at yet another tragedy, another offence. The horror of Istanbul is just the latest in a litany of horrors. On the eve of the centenary of the slaughter at the Somme, we encounter again the sort of savagery that strips away the veneers of civilisation that we long for.

Airports are terrible targets. These are places where different worlds intersect – where diverse humanity glances off each other in transit as we circle our tiny planet. They should be places of encounter, of surprise and reconciliation – departures crisscrossing arrivals. They are places where the world connects and we are exposed to the richness of humanity and culture.

So, it is not only tragic when people-haters attack innocent travellers in the name of their violent ideologies, but it strips us of our longing for peace. “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Perhaps a question the Lord ought to be asking us.)

But, talking of stripping away the veneers of normality or civilisation, we are compelled to ask where the violence of hatred begins. The last week has seen a marked increase in racist incidents in our own country, with people being shockingly abused in public and cards being sent to Polish children telling them to get out. Maybe we are good at keeping such sentiments under the surface until they are given sanction by the erosion of the social inhibitors that normally keep them in check.

But, just as racism begins not as a screaming campaign of violence, but as a seed that gets watered by silence and by rumour, so does its antidote.

One of the stories Jesus told is pertinent here. The place where God is to be found is like a mustard seed – tiny, easy to tread on. Yet, where it takes root – hidden from sight – it has the potential to grow into a tree whose branches offer a place of refuge and habitation for the birds of the air. Of course, what is interesting about this image is that the branches don't get to be selective about which birds make their nests among them.

This is a picture not just of hospitality, but of nurture. If racism and violence grow from small seeds that are allowed to take root in the minds and hearts of our children, then it is equally true that these will be challenged not by wishful silence, but by the planting, watering and nurturing of seeds that grow hope, commitment and love.

It is not enough to dig up the bad seed; a good one has to be planted in its place.

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The English Defence League – minus most of its recently-resigned leadership – is coming to Bradford on Saturday.

In one sense it is really nice that lost of people from outside the city want to come and visit. They need to know, however, that the weather forecast is shockingly awful and it will be cold.

In response to a request by the local newspaperwpid-Photo-16-Sep-2013-1332.jpg for a few words about this visit, I offered the following:

The first question we need to ask of the English Defence League is: what sort of ‘England’ do you think you are defending? Is the answer something like: racist, violent, anti-social and destructive?

Where the EDL goes, they disturb ordinary people’s lives, and leave behind a huge financial cost to the police and local authorities. Many ordinary citizens speak of feeling violated.

It is interesting that the leaders of the EDL have just announced their departure on the grounds that the organization has become too extreme and has fallen into the hands of the far right. Well, past experience would suggest that none of this should have come as a blinding revelation. But, Tommy Robinson has now distinguished between “Islamist ideology” and “Muslims”: he wants to be against the former, but not the latter.

For Bradford this is significant. Bradford is mature enough in its community and intercultural relations to be able to face hard questions and to have honest conversations about the challenges as well as the opportunities afforded by our cultural interactions (or lack of them). These challenges are clear, but are best addressed by people who live in Bradford and have a purchase on what happens here. We are big enough to avoid illusions and work towards better integration.

Bradford is rich in diversity – and more colourful than any other city in England. We need to hold firm to our common heritage as we shape what it will mean to be ‘English’ for our grandchildren. The EDL has no place here because it has nothing to bring to the conversation.

Really, this just picks up on something I wrote when Channel Four broadcast its two-part programme entitled ‘Make Bradford British’. Since when was ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britishness’ something we merely inherited rather than something we are creating? In the earlier post (referred to above) I observed:

Focus on the naff title is fair – especially as this first programme, if anything, is clear that Bradford is British. The question is: what does it mean to be British? It seems that when we try to identify identity we look to the past. But, ‘Britishness’ is not some sort of product we inherit and then try to keep in a cultural box; rather, it is evolving as time moves on. We are creating Britain as we go. In this sense, perhaps, the title of the series unwittingly opens up a more productive debate – or provides a better-shaped lens through which to look at local culture: how do we take our responsibility in shaping at every level the Britain we are becoming?

I have no idea what fantasy of ‘England’ the EDL thinks it is defending. And I am not holding my breath that they’ll be able to articulate any coherent vision for the England we might create together.

Whatever. If they make it through the wind and the rain, they’ll find a confident city, facing challenges with eyes open, and they can at least marvel at the wonderful Victorian architecture.

 

I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

The British Nationalist Party (who, funnily enough, never define what ‘British’ means) has put out a bizarre advert to make us feel sorry for them as a beleagured and unjustly persecuted group. The advert includes a dodgy picture of a rather effete – but very white – Jesus and quotes John 15:20: ‘If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.’ ‘What would Jesus do?, the poster asks and very helpfully supplies the answer: ‘Vote BNP’ in the European Elections on Thursday 4 June. The poster even dares to state that the BNP is ‘persecuted for saying what you think’.

First things first: the Church of England has just stated in unequivocal terms that membership of the BNP is incompatible with Christian faith. This poster is a shameless two-fingers to anyone with either a brain or a conscience.

Secondly, people need to get out and vote positively for what they do want in these elections. To stay at home and not vote leaves the door open to activist parties like the BNP to get in by default.

Thirdly, the Church of England should be proud to have wound the BNP up so effectively.

Fourthly, and remembering the confession of Martin Niemoeller after the disaster of the Nazis in Germany, we might also benefit from reading his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1933 poem, the hand-written version of which I saw in Berlin in 2006:

image008

Translated it reads:

The service begins. The opening hymn has died away. The pastor stands in front of the altar and begins: “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” Nobody moves. “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” Again everything remained still. “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” So Christ gets down from the cross on the altar and leaves the church.