In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.

 

There are times when being a news editor must be the worst job.

What ought to lead the news today? What should be the order of priority? Which is most important in its implications for the world?

  • The continuing brutality in Syria and the dangers of a wrong move leading to a regional or global conflict?
  • The apparently uncontrollable brutality meted out in Nairobi, with Muslims being separated out for life and non-Muslims for execution in a shopping centre?
  • The suicide bombings in Pakistan aimed specifically at Christians? (Oops, this one has already fallen off the front pages, so no link.)
  • Ongoing violence in Egypt and violence against Christians there?
  • The latest warnings by scientists about global warming and the debate about human causes of this?
  • Potential rapprochement between the USA and Iran?
  • The re-election of Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political leader in Europe?
  • The continuing oppression and slaughter in Darfur, Sudan? (Oh dear, not on any page – old news.)

The disappearance of Christian communities from Asia and the Middle East might not seem to everyone in liberal Britain to be the most important phenomenon in the world – especially to those who think religion is just a slightly embarrassing matter of mere individual private opinion. Not only is it a scandal, however, but it might turn out to bring a really significant change to the balance of world politics – and human co-existence in parts of the globe where diverse cultures have lived alongside each other for centuries.

The loudest news isn't necessarily the most important.

 

It's a bit of a game, isn't it?

Keen to take the initiative, the USA and France ratchet up the pressure to attack Syria on the grounds that Syria must be deterred from using chemical weapons again. Out of nowhere Russia suggests that Syria hand over all chemical weapons for destruction by international experts. This immediately offers a solution that wrongfoots the USA and France, forcing them to react (rather than initiate) and exposing whether military action is really intended to deter, or to aid regime change or to punish Assad.

Of course, this proposal didn't come from nowhere. And the clever Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, was disingenuous when, announcing the proposal, he said he didn't know if Syria would agree to it. Lavrov had just spent hours with the Syrian Foreign Minister and I don't think they were discussing the World Cup Qualifiers. Then we discover that they were working on this during the recent meeting of the G20.

Russia always held the key to this and they knew it. Their timing has been excellent – in diplomatic and political/tactical terms. And, yes, it has somewhat queried the pitch for those who wish to hit Syria hard. It possibly also exposes the difference between (a) the western leaders who have to worry about pesky parliaments and democratic accountability and (b) Putin.

Of course, whatever the tactics of the diplomats in their political game-playing, this remains anything but a game for the people whose slaughter merited no intervention until chemical weapons were introduced, when the game suddenly changed.

What price life?

The Russian offering might just have changed the game. Or simply delayed it. Or will the die now be cast by someone else?

The Diocese of Bradford is currently hosting the Bishop of Khartoum, Sudan, as we celebrate 30 years of a diocesan link. Talking with the bishop over the last few days about the situation facing Christians in Sudan, I keep asking myself the question why a red line has been drawn in Syria, but not in Darfur? President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, yet the West has not threatened to carry out surgical strikes against those Sudanese military installations that continue to commit murder on a massive scale.

Why not? What is the moral difference between Syria and Darfur/Sudan?

These questions arose not just from conversations with the Bishop of Khartoum, but also from a service in a Bradford parish church this morning.

Church – particularly the Church of England – frequently gets a bad press, yet where else can you find a community of people who consciously belong together, deliberately question their own way of life, dig deep into the stuff of their souls, wrestle with how personal commitment (discipleship of Jesus) connects with (or leads to or derives from) stuff like Syria, Darfur, and so on? Where else do you get this corporate soul-searching in a context of music, silence and attentive listening? What other group brings together (by choice) people of different social strata in one place where attention is paid to looking at the self and beyond the self, encouraging commitment and perseverance, challenging complacency and hypocrisy?

I think we easily overlook just how remarkable this phenomenon is. A congregation thinks of today's routines in the light of the eternal and the global. It hangs on and lives with uncertainty and unresolved questions. Yet, it does so with hope – not wishful thinking, but the hope that derives from “hearing amid the cacophanies of the present the music of the future”.

Anyway, the point I was musing on with the congregation this morning was that when Jesus invited people to follow him, he insisted that they did so with their eyes open. This journey would be no walk in the park, but would throw them together with people they wouldn't choose and might not like – but by following him they would deny themselves the option of choosing company that was convenient to them. Pulling together a passage from Jeremiah (18:1-11) and Luke (14:25-33), we noted that Christians are to be people who, having received the generosity of God, are bound to live generously. However, they must also live out the habit of recognising failure and choosing to change – personally and by feeding the hungry, caring for the destitute, and so on.

And when it seems that, in Jeremiah's language, the potter's clay gets messed up and has to be broken and re-thrown, this is not the end of the story. According to the biblical narrative, (and in the words of Amercian Fransiscan, Richard Rohr) “everything belongs”. Nothing of our life is wasted. The broken bits get collected up and re-worked into something both beautiful and useful. Yet, this should not be easily romanticised: it is painful and hard, and impacts on the emotions, the psyche, lifestyle and self-esteem.

This is what church does. It creates a space in which deep examination and questioning can go on – both of the self and of the world we live in. And it opens up the possibility of motivating a community of people who seek to see the world changed, but starting with themselves. This is the humility of repentance.

And it compels us not to lose hold on the hard questions about self and Syria, the local and the global, the temporal and the eternal.

It is also hugely enjoyable.

 

If I had a pound for every time I get told, “something must be done” – about something – I would be a rich man. The trouble is, however, that the phrase only ever gets used when the speaker has not the first idea what might be done, what should be done or what will be done. It is a cry of abdication or helplessness.

It is a cry that has gone up many times in the last couple of weeks. Something must be done about Syria. But, what exactly… and to what end?

  • Something to save the lives of innocent children?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from chemical attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from any form of violent attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from a future shaped by sectarian hatred, rage and revenge?

Well, I guess we are back to the questions of achievability touched on in my last post on Syria. What seems clear to me is that a justification for military intervention must be rooted in more than a humanitarian sense of emotional helplessness or anger at impotence. It is appalling to watch human suffering on such a scale – and brought to our living rooms on various screens – but it is equally appalling to create further suffering by intervening in a way that salves the conscience of the outside agent whilst simply complicating the contortions within the country itself.

I have to confess both to ignorance of the detail being discussed in Washington and Paris and to the technical capacity of the military to reduce the capability of Assad’s forces to repeat or continue chemical attacks (presumably we are OK with them just doing normal – that is, ‘conventional’ -bombing, shooting, torture and butchery?). However, I cannot yet see how a ‘surgical’ intervention cannot but complicate the civil war being waged inside the country. One of the lessons of Iraq (the circumstances of which I accept are not comparable, but the potential consequences of which might be) is that it is impossible to whack in and whack out, leaving the internal parties then to sort everything out. Intervention is intervention – and the whole nature of the business changes immediately and for ever.

(I realise this is a slightly unfortunate segue, but it is a bit like church congregations not realising that more people joining the church does not make the church ‘the same but bigger’, but, rather, radically changes the church – because rather than ‘they joining us’, ‘we together’ are now a different company and culture. One new person changes the whole.)

Any intervention into Syria – however necessary or justified – will change everything. A single US missile attack will change everything. The US Congress might well decide this is necessary, appropriate and justifiable. They must, however, recognise that a swift ‘hit ’em hard’, ‘mission accomplished’ ‘in and out’ intervention is a fantasy. As Niall Ferguson wrote about the USA (either in Colossus or Empire), if it is an empire, it must behave like an empire. Americans might hate the notion of being imperial, but if that is what they are being (by policing the world in this way), then they must put away simplistic notions of consequence-free ‘surgical strikes’ that bring no further obligations. To do an imperial thing without an imperial mindset or willingness to take on imperial responsibilities is to guarantee long-term and more complicated consequences.

This morning we hear that Damascus and Moscow are laughing down their sleeves at UK and US ‘weakness’. Let them laugh. Morality and justice are not the stuff of the school playground where being called names is the essential spur to retributive action. Better to get it right than to get it quick – or react out of mere pique.

It is all easy to say, sitting here in autumnal England. I don’t feel the flesh of the dead and dying in Syria. But, the suffering will not be ended by western action; and we cannot simply run away from the agony of helplessness that comes from recognising that ‘we’ can’t fix everything or make the pain stop. This civil war will take decades to work through.

The least we can do is apply popular pressure for increased diplomatic engagement. And fund whatever aid we can. And, for those who believe that prayer changes those doing the praying, – committing them to the consequences of their prayers – we must pray. If “something must be done” at all, then let that ‘something’ be right, achievable, moral and effective. There is more at stake here than the international standing of particular countries or the political stature of particular politicians – or is this less about Syrian people and more about international political hubris?

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.

 

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.

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Location:Philadelphia, USA