The slow pushback on the autocrats

Underneath the headlines, autocrats keep being foiled

Just read the annual letter by the head of the American-based Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

He talks about the slow pushback on the autocrats. Messy, partial, grassroots, ragged and often not making the headlines, it makes the tyrants lives harder and more complicated and at times, impossible. Poor them.

In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Yet while the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles. Victory in any given case is never assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a powerful counterattack.

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch, 2019 Keynote

He adds

… new alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, have mounted an increasingly effective resistance. Political leaders decide to violate human rights because they see advantages, whether maintaining their grip on power, padding their bank accounts, or rewarding their cronies. This growing resistance has repeatedly raised the price of those abusive decisions. Because even abusive governments weigh costs and benefits, increasing the cost of abuse is the surest way to change their calculus of repression. Such pressure may not succeed immediately, but it has a proven record over the long term.

He then offers an impressive survey of current human rights abuses and how in many cases unorthodox groupings have added to the headaches for the autocrats.

I like this. It’s a very ‘slow mission’ way of opposing evil.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.

Psalm 37:10-11 NIVUK

What happens after Islamism

People get fed up of it

In some states of Nigeria, the northern ones, where around the turn of the century they declared shari’a law for Muslims in a dozen provinces a few years ago, they are cutting the numbers of religious police. In Kano province their budget has been cut by a third, and they no longer patrol the (‘Christian’-run) bars and betting shops, hauling off Muslims.

Economist, ‘Nigeria’s vice cops feel squeezed’, April 13 2019

In Saudi Arabia, controversial crown prince has greatly restricted the powers of the religious police, forcing them to work office hours only and only produce written reports rather than taking direct action. One newspaper reported in 2018, ‘many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.’

https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/saudi-religious-polices-decline-under-spotlight[

In Egypt, the Economistreported in Nov 2017, how a young puritanical preacher in the town of Mansoura used to have a congregation that overflowed the mosque into the nearby street (and that was not unusual). ‘Now he barely half-fills the mosque,’ and complains, ‘we’re in decline.’ This, according to the newspaper, ‘is true in many places in the Arab World’.

The joy of ticking boxes

and outsourcing thought

My maths teacher wife tells me her kids hate nothing more than thinking. She gets protests: ‘Miss, my brain’s going to boil over’, for example. ‘Miss, this is child cruelty, making us think.’

What kids really like, she goes on, is working through a page of exercises and getting a page of ticks for everything they got right. Tick (check) tick tick. Wonderful.

The preference for ticking (checking) boxes instead of thinking obviously starts early and perhaps never leaves us.

As many of us remember, a few years ago the UK parliament, (then in normal times) had an expenses scandal. Some politicians 1, it turned out, had been drinking from a tax-payers’ fountain like camels just returning from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Very few had broken the law. They had cleared the expenses with the parliamentary authorities. What they had actually done was outsourced their thinking and replaced it with ticking boxes. It wasn’t breaking the rules to get your moat cleaned, or your birdboxes nailed up, or a new kitchen, so, whoopie do. It must be OK.

Fortunately, another much-loved set of people in our society, the journalists, did their thinking for them. It may have ticked the boxes, they pointed out, but was it right? You are the highest court in land – what were doing, outsourcing your integrity?

Politicians are just like us, only blow-up versions of us, so we must do this kind of thing ourselves all the time.

The hidden plague

loneliness

lonely

Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness. 

‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’

‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’

Justin Welby’s ‘Reimagining Britain’

The Brexit referendum was the moment the ceiling fell in; but the dripping had been a problem for some time. Justin Welby’s book ‘Reimagining Britain’ is what happens when an Archbishop joins a crowd of workers leaning on shovels, looking at our nation, sucking their teeth and saying that this is going to take some fixing.

I like our Archbishops a lot. Archbishop Sentamu actually does stuff, like fasting, actually going hungry, which is a step up from most members of the order Primate, who usually only do stuff metaphorically (like ‘wrestling’ with a Bible text).

In Justin Welby, meanwhile, it is so refreshing to have an archbishop who doesn’t look like he’s just stumbled out of a library and can’t find his way back.

My liking for the Archbishops may make me too kindly disposed to this book; but even if it has flaws, it’s a really enlightening read.

Archbishop Welby is striving to ‘reimagine Britain’ after the loss of a Christian backdrop, the rise of pluralism, and above all, after the divisions brought to light by the Brexit referendum.

It’s a good fight and it needs someone, just as the nation needed an Archbishop Temple when Britain was being previously reimagined at the end of WWII. Welby believes Christians can lead this reimagining; in fact they must.  

Government-issue British values

The government’s response to the retreat of Christendom seems to have been to ask some poor civil service intern to write up a set of  ‘British Values’ on half a sheet of A4.1 This is to replace what grew through the toils of scholars, monarchs and martyrs in the last millennium and a half. They are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Welby rightly rejects these as too flimsy and attempts to replace them.

‘When faith is increasingly privatized, it leaves a vaccuum which relativism in belief or a great plurality of incommensurable beliefs is unable to fill … There is a need for a generous and hospitable metanarrative within which competing truths can be held.’

He goes on  ‘It will be a suggestion of this book that Christian faith, centred on love-in-action, trusting in the sovereignty of God rather than political power, provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’ (p 17)

 

So he first suggests a set of values, then attempts to reimagine aspects of British life with reference to them. 

Justin’s values

The Archbishop’s suggested values for reimagining Britain are ‘community’, ‘courage,’ and ‘stability’. If those sound too wishy-washy, suspend disbelief for a moment.

Community is about the way we all belong to each other, a note distinctly lacking in political discourse at the moment. After the referendum, the leavers didn’t say ‘let’s be magnanimous, let’s move forward together’. Instead we had, ‘You lost, get over it.’

Courage means giving room for animal spirits of competition, innovation and creativity.

Stability is basically a commitment to compromise, combined with a caution that gives room for bad stuff to happen without causing everything to collapse. Compromise! Forethought! Caution! Imagine!

So it’s good stuff. These are good directions to urge our society to head.

The best bit

The best part of the book for me was the reminder that Christians can rest on two truths: God is good, and God is King. In depressing days like these, I like the freedom to hope.  

Hope as a foundation

For thinking about your country

While I’m familiar with hope as a quality applied to persons (and myself) the idea of applying it to whole nations is refreshing.

 

…[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set  by others or by some mysterious fate.

The Christian undestanding is that hope is an essential … state of mind for all human beings…

..[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set by others or by some mysterious fate.

Francois-Xavier, Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, wrote an account of more than a decade in prison in Vietnam after the Communist takeover of te south in 1974. His is a testimony of hope, despite torture, solitary confinement and a near certainty of death in prison, forgotten by the majority of the world. He was sustained by the presence of Christ, by Mass said each day with a grain of rice and enough rice wine to hold in the palm of his hand . He was sustained by the story, the narrative of hope that centre on the resurrection of Christ and his living presence with us now. He was not destroyed by circumstance, or a sense of fatalism, but neither did he have a false hope of survival, a vain optimism. The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the  most powerful narrative shift in world history, enabling a small and scattered group of disciples full of despair to set a pattern and style of life that conquered the Roman Emprie without violvence.
(Reimagining Britain, pp 25, 26, 27)

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Reimagining Britain

How wonderful if it happened

Just started Justin Welby’s new book ‘Reimagining Britain’. The introduction is intriguing:

  • ‘British Values’: have come to mean ‘democcracy, the rule of law and respect for other’.
  • As a phrase they strike the wrong note somehow
  • These values are necessary (obviously) but not sufficient for the task of ‘re-imagining Britain’
  • ‘I suspect, and argue here that there are values that come out of our common European history and Christian heritage, which have been tweaked and adapted in each country and culture.’
  • Given the amount being written these days, and the great rumble of the Brexquake shattering everything around us (my phrase), ‘this really is one of those rare moments when we have both the risk and the opportunity of rethinking what we should do and be as a country.’

A rare moment to change direction, by redigging some old wells. Super stuff. This is slow mission. Bring it on. Looking forward to the rest of the book and hoping to blog further about it.

 

I bought this book, counter-intuitively, by walking into Waterstones and handing over my credit card – full-price, hardback, from a high street store that pays UK tax. Then I went to a coffee shop to blog about it. Life is deeply, wonderfully good that I get to do these things.

But here’s a reference for those of us, me at the top of the list, who also happen to appreciate Amazon:

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If you can hold the Universe together when all around are losing it…

Are you the ceremonial centre of the Universe?

World's Favorite Sport
Thanks to Rama V at Flickr.com for making this photo Creative commons!

Now that the World Cup is upon us (and if you still care about this ethical mudbath, this sleaze-fest) you may well find yourself taking up your job again as ceremonial centre of the Universe.

  • They scored because you went out to the bathroom.
  • If you hadn’t reached for the nachos when they were taking the corner, the ball would have gone in.
  • You, the ceremonial centre of the Universe, have messed up for the whole nation.
  • Don’t move now for the rest of the match

It’s instinctive. As well as being stupid. I’m told it’s also everywhere. All over the world, people are appeasing gods, making offerings, avoiding taboos, looking at things, not looking at things, all so that the Universe will come out right.

A few problems with this idea

It’s also, of course, a theme of the Bible. People are at the centre of things. The Universe is this way because  humanity rebelled.

Much of science’s long story has been about de-throning us from this  (surely illusory) sense. No, it obviously wasn’t us that turned a perfect creation into a wounded and crying one. Dinosaurs were getting cancer long before any humans were even around.

That’s a big subject, a fascinating and fruitful one, and one I wrote more about in More than Bananas (see below).

I only note today something I missed in More than Bananas. This: once you bring Christ into the equation, everything changes again.  Creator and owner; upholder of everything; the one who pays the cosmic utility bills, Christ is the centre of the Universe.  By choosing to clothe himself in our humanity, he has brought humanity back to the heart of things along with him – back from our obscurity among dust and muck on Planet III.

Our funny bodies, mid-sized in terms of the Universe, and still carrying artefacts of our evolutionary past, have a cosmic significance through Christ. He has made us the firstfruits of all that will one day return to him.

A mystery, and not particularly helpful for the footy, but still.

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One lunch at a time

Don’t mobilize, metabolize.

Breakfast in Catalonia (author pic)

Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:

Strategy!

Outreach!

Mobilisation!

I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.

It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46).  No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.

Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1

So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.

The drinking straw and the eye-dropper

Looking for signs of the Kingdom

 

Drop

The drinking straw

We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.

People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.

The eye-dropper

There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God  is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.

This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’

Who are we?

So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’

Drinking straw servants?

Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.

But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved,  with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate  with it.