And this should not be

This post doesn’t need a commentary really. I have an interest in youth justice and this landed in my in-box. 1 On April 26 2023, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote this about His Majesty’s Youth Offender Institution at Cookham Wood:

An inspection of a HMYOI Cookham Wood in April 2023 found that a quarter of the boys were being held in solitary confinement for extended periods, including two for more than 100 days, as a means of managing conflict between children. Records showed that it was not unusual for these boys to not come out of their cells for days on end, with no meaningful human interaction, education or other intervention. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ meaning they were not allowed to mix with some of their peers, and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77 children.

Children told inspectors they felt unsafe, and were increasingly resorting to carrying weapons, many of which were made from metal which boys had scavenged from equipment in their cells, including kettles, in a bid to protect themselves. More than 200 weapons had been recovered in the six months preceding the inspection, despite inadequate searching procedures.

Cookham Wood was in a poor overall condition, with dirty living units and broken equipment. Prison staff were exhausted, with significant shortfalls on wings, and, while many clearly cared about the children, they felt unsupported by senior managers and had given up hope that improvement was possible. Four-hundred-and-fifty staff were employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders. The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for just 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site.

The findings of this inspection represented the culmination of a steady decline in standards documented in inspections since 2016 that cannot be allowed to continue.

I’m glad we have a Chief Inspector of Prisons, that their work is public, that (on government directions) they require immediate action from the government, and that we ordinary people can write about this stuff without people turning up in vans accusing me of ‘insubordination’ or ‘spreading instability’ as might happen in many countries. I’m glad there are caring people at Cookham Wood and others who will campaign and fight. I’m glad we don’t incarcerate that many children (fewer than 1000 in the whole country). But the good news stops somewhere there.

The light touch(2)

Thinking more about the way we do things in community, and most especially if it’s on you to lead it.

I wrote last week about the subtle, partial, fertile, creative light touch that achieves more than the all-spelt-out, big, heavy, full-throated approach. I think this is because the light touch respects people’s humanity. They can work stuff out for themselves. They don’t need to be infantilized. Dropping seeds into their hearts may at times be more productive – though less predictable – than taking them through the procedure manual.

The more you think about this, though, the more complicated it gets. You need to select the right leadership tool for the job. Here (making it up as I go along) are some.

  1. The routine procedure. Some things are just best approached as procedures to be learnt. They become routine, mechanical memory. For example, the crash team electrocuting the stopped heart, the pilot working through a preflight checklist. Mechanical memory (and its first cousin, tradition) embeds and even automates the proven learning of the past. It saves us having to think, which is exhausting and can be error-strewn or just not as good.
  2. The precision task. Related to the routine procedure, the precision task differs from it because it requires a deep understanding. A checklist won’t do. Somewhere in your head you have to carry a precise working model of the system. Chernobyl exploded when they powered-up a powering-down reactor, without knowing the detail. They thought it probably would be OK, these reactors are safe anyway, leadership was on their back and it was nearly goodbye to Europe. Apollo 13 came home safe because the main actors mastered the detail., and had room to contribute more than just obedience to orders.
  3. The judgement. Sometimes a situation just needs someone to decide even if they have incomplete information. As recipients we may bridle, we may chafe, it will be the wrong decision in small or large ways, but it will have been decided and we can all move on. That is why we elect politicians. They aren’t super-people but we pay them to make the call. Court judgements are like that, elections are like that, Brexit was like that: a poor decision but least a decision. We are spared the agony of not resolving anything. Now we can reset and go again.
  4. The light touch and now here it is again, part of the tool box, ready to be applied, creative, open-ended, unexpected, hated by the control-type, slow, requiring humility and an open hand, but a way to reach unexpected solutions to complex problems. The gospel is like that. Forget the religious clutter, says Paul, it boils down to faith working through love. Work things out from there. May it never be missing from the toolkit.

The beautiful light touch

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

I wonder if the light touch is what makes genius. So many areas: the penalty taker in soccer: does he (or she) just thump into the top corner, English centre-forward style? Or do they send the keeper the wrong with a little shimmy–a light touch–then side-foot the ball into the net? Does the music, or the writing, or the engineering, tend towards the sound and thunder, the power, or the elegant, effective, quiet, light touch?

I see it in my own field. When faced with a scandal, it’s easy to over-write, loading up the text with adjectives. But as good journalists everywhere appear to know, it’s more forceful to focus on one human story, telling it simply, letting it gnaw at the reader’s psyche. Sure, you can follow your story with your substantial evidence and research, but it’s the light touch that gets under the skin.

At the heart of ‘light touch’ is a virtue that I do not hear routinely praised in my neighbourhood: creativity, originality, looking at things in a fresh way.

We who claim to be Christians are of all people those with the least excuse for not seeking creative solutions. We are not chained to a rule book or a procedure manual, we serve a living and creative Christ. We herald and anticipate a new heavens and new earth that is preparing to burst out of this maggoty old one like a butterfly from its sleeping bag. If we resort to old, traditional, heavy-duty, heavy-weather approaches we are of all people most to be pitied or perhaps even despised.

Was Jesus ‘light touch’? Not when denouncing pharisees, one feels, calling them out as snakes. Nor when ordering demons around. But in his stories, in his dealings with the vulnerable, in his meek suffering, there was such a gentle hand and such an open hand. There was also such creative genius and novel approaches. He taught, then walked, rather than making the sale. The light touch and the creativity did much of the rest.

I like that.

Conservation v the common good

Looking beyonder

I think we can do better than Conservation. Conservation, as perhaps exemplified by the conservation movement, looks backwards, restoring things (habitats, rainforest, species). It wants to wind back our atmospheric carbon dioxide to the level at, or ultimately before, the level at the start of the Industrial Revolution. (This latter idea, is, of course, hard to disagree with given that wreckage that a sudden increase is causing. )

But on that perspective Conservation starts to look like other programmes that thrive on grievance and nostalgia. There’s even an undercurrent that Planet Earth would be a lot better better without nature-munching humans. Greens, on this view (and I mean political greens rather than the members of the brassica family), could start to look regressive and repressive, just like the populist right.

This is sub-optimal and sub-Christian. I really like and definitely prefer the alternate messages that spill out of the gospel.

  1. Seek the common good. This is tons better than ‘preserve the environment’. Because it (a) embraces both humans and the rest of creation together, (b) gives a coherent framework for reponsible decision-making (c) is open-ended, creative and replete with possibility, and (d) is centred around love. It’s a million times better than just winding back the clock, and it enables us to consider all our actions (flying across the Atlantic for example) in the light of the best loving options, rather than simply the tedious and ill-defined business of minimising our feelings of guilt or indulging in self-justification.
  2. The future is brighter than the past. This is a deep Christian assumption. Creation–according to the apostles– groans, waiting for God’s people to be unveiled. In the meantime, we humans are to foreshadow and pre-echo and anticipate that future by how we live and what we do now. This also makes us look at Conservation in a different light. The nature that Conservationists are wanting to return to is in large part cruel and bloody. A lot of animals (if you watch the BBC nature programmes anyway) seem to spend their days fearing for or fleeing for their lives, while chasing down and eating other animals along the way. Consider a puffin with a mouthful of sand-eels, trying to stop a gull from stealing the eels out of its beak. Which animal is doing well here? The gull? The puffin? The sand-eels? Creation appears to be subject to frustration, which idea crops up now and then in the Bible. What’s the better way? Humans and nature thriving together. What’s the future? The trees clap their hands, the mountains sing together, the sea-monsters praise God, the lion lies down with the lamb and eats hay like the ox. The whole creation thrives and flourishes, people and nature singing along together. Obviously, as with all things eschatological, we can neither foreknow the details nor make them happen, but we can witness to them by the way we live now. And it opens up a world.

Overcome evil with good (and slow)

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

In Erzin county in Turkey, despite the two earthquakes, not a single building collapsed. The Economist reported that ‘the local mayor and his predecessor told local media that they did not allow any illegal construction. Both used the same phrase: “My conscience is clear.”‘1. Another theory is that the geology of that area is different from more damaged places. Perhaps the answer is a complex mix of factors; or perhaps integrity was enough.

Lots of press commentary implies that, though Turkey has strict building codes, a little informal negotiation with local officials usually meant you could reinforce your steel with less iron or add another floor or two. These were the buildings that fell like concrete Jenga blocks on their sleeping tenants.

Was that evil? And is ‘evil’ (if it exists) the reason lots of hopeful optimism about the benefits of reason and technology are overstated or misplaced? If people were reasonable, and if we got the tech right, perhaps we could build buildings on earthquake zones that didn’t fall down. But as soon as developers suck their teeth, and bend a bit, and hand over some cash, and ease down on what are very restrictive and expensive rules, which shut out ordinary people from buying homes at reasonable prices…

We are all of us suspects in these crimes. What do any of us do when (as we think) an overfussy law stands inconveniently in our way? When does a little flexing and bending, or even a little transgressing, become ‘evil’? Food for thought.

Crazy evil and crazy good and the limits of science fiction

AI-generated image of Keziah Mordant, anti-heroine of my three novels, who is both crazy evil and crazy good

I have just now realized that the science fiction I loved as a youngster was all modernist propaganda.

Sourced in the 1950s and 1960s, the work of one of my childhood heroes, Arthur C Clarke, and others (including the original Star Trek), described a near-future world where Reason and Technology had solved most of our problems. And they promoted the assumption therefore that the key to the human problem was Education and Science. This is modernist propaganda, and it has happily been blown apart by later writers of SF and fantasy, both comic and serious.

Crazy evil gets in the way. As has been pointed out, a good education and a fine grounding in science can enable, rather than prevent, crazy evil. You need a good education and a fine grounding in science to create gas chambers (for example). And however we try to solve human problems, some human bias against the good and right, a bias we all have, gets us tangled in our shoelaces. Reasoning beings, we aren’t always ruled by reason; and science increases our capacities, rather than our moral sense. Malnutrition declines; obesity becomes a leading cause of death. Childhood illnesses are cured, thanks to medical advances; but one in four late-teen females in the UK report mental health problems. A society awash in reason and technology is a place of ill-health in new ways.

Our happy ending will never arrive by reason and technology alone. There’s too much crazy evil –in us, in society– for that. Yet the desire for a happy ending is so deep in us. Surely it can only be finally attained by crazy good, by grace, by the unearned. ‘I am creating a new heavens and a new earth’ says the book of Isaiah1. ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come 2.’ It has to come from outside ourselves.

This helpful book got me thinking about this stuff (though I found a cheaper version):

And this wonderful book by Mary Doria Russell, about a Jesuit mission to alpha centauri, brilliantly shows as inadequate the modernist worldview in SF. (Russell won the Arthur C Clarke award with it, a tribute to both writers I think.) A pity the author, having written a classic, moved away to other genres.

Why academic theology departments should be subject to government cuts

Photo by Samuel Perez on Unsplash

There are several reasons for this.

  1. Theologians try to run before they can walk. I have written about this before, but nobody noticed, so I feel OK to write about it again. Before attempting something on The Meaning of Kenosis or The Problem of Evil they should prove their abilities on simpler matters. The Problem of Trapped Wind, for example, or the Problem of Notable Theologians Borrowing Your Study While You Are Out and Picking their Noses and Putting the Pickings on the Underside of Your Desk. Solve these, and you have an audience for life.
  2. Their training is deficient. No-one should be allowed to be in charge of anything or opine on anything unless they have (a) changed nappies and (b) organized and run a toddlers’ birthday party. The most advanced degrees should only be awarded to those who have personally sucked snot from an infant nose.1 We have had enough of academics marking their own homework and being of no practical use.
  3. They hide their work from their intended audience by having it traditionally published. Learned journals and academic textbooks keep your work and your audience well apart from each other. So you have written an insightful monograph on how future hope informs present praxis? Well done for putting it in inaccessible journals or expensive print books. Hardly anyone can reach it in there. The youth worker in Nigeria, the pastor in the Philippines, the church-planter among the Dalits in India won’t be able to study your stuff to nurture thoughtful, rounded, disciples of Christ, even though each has a mobile phone with lots of storage and data. They’ll have to make do with the free stuff from permatanned American 2 preachers instead. By hiding your work in antediluvian print, you ensure that discipleship for most Christian flocks will be reduced to saying some magic words to get rich quick.
  4. Well done!

Carbon offsets and indulgences

An indulgence? Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

History recurs as farce. I was thinking today of how offsetting your carbon is like the medieval practice of buying indulgences. With indulgences, a bit of money handed over bought you some excess righteousness- credit from someone who had plenty, a saint say – and used it to redeem souls from bad places. Carbon offsets are 21st century indulgences, spending money in one area in order to redeem transgression in another.

My wife and I, for example, pay extra for zero-carbon electricity and suitably offsetted gas, and we’ve cut a lot of meat out of our diets, in order to generate some indulgence for our flights to Spain (which we also offset) to where both our brothers have flats that need occupying. (I have tried renaming these holidays ‘retreats’, which appears to justify them at a certain level, though I don’t believe it reduces the carbon dioxide emissions.)

Of course indulgences were made up, a theological convenience, and perhaps there is an argument that carbon credits are the same. Just as sin continued to build up on medieval Earth, so carbon dioxide builds up on 21st century Earth.

Indulgences meanwhile deluded and defrauded thousands of peasants, turned grace into mercantilism, and debased the church. What did the human species get in return? St Peter’s in Rome. Nice though St Peter’s is, surely that was not a net gain.

Carbon offsets, on the other hand, go towards replacing all the forest our species has cleared over the years. All those tonnes of growing trees are made up of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, so we’re (eventually) just putting back what our ancestors took out.

But maybe the earth would happily re-wild itself just if it were left alone, without us setting up an industrial-scale tree-planting operation, complete with fossil-fuel powered earth-moving equipment and unbiogdegradable plastic collars round all the little saplings?

Is offsetting a net gain for the human species? A blundering, flawed first attempt to repair damage? Or a convenient cover for sucking out more fossil carbon from under the earth? Be good to know.

My personal guess is that you’ve got to start somewhere. Down the line are ways to replace kerosene with sustainable jet fuel, and petrol with batteries, and natural gas with all the net-zero electric generation tech. Hopefully offsetting is not just a cover for further climate sin, but a small net gain for us and the planet. A slow start is better than no start. In that way they are unlike medieval indulgences.

We can hope.

Everything we touch

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

We’ve noted before in this blog that we humans are all spliced together: what we do, even what we believe, is steered by the people around us. It’s been measured and proven to crazy extents: if you are slim, or self-harming, or right-wing there is a measurable effect on the slimness, self-harming tendencies or right-wing views of your friends’ friends’ friends.

And none of this is static. As we go about our days, all of us are processing the views of everyone else. The whole human network is humming to itself, tossing thoughts around.

If we had clever software, or a suitable imagination (another novel, anyone?), we could watch opinions flood through the human network like the networked pulses of neurons they are. Surveys catch some of it: see how cultures change their views on marriage, divorce, violence. Flowing through the human network are endless upgrades to human cultures. Like software upgrades, some of them are even worth having.

Who changes the network? We all do. We all do. Everything we touch, every word we speak, every response we make, filters into the humming background of inter-human processing.

The implications of this for those of us who seek to be shepherded by Jesus Christ are enormous. I have just finished reading the Letter to the Philippians in the Bible, in my attempt to read the whole NT in Greek, and I noticed that the apostle Paul got this. He thought like a networked being. My imprisonment makes other people bold, he says. What’s happened to me has stiffened the spines of others. And later on he sails into that magnificient passage: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice. 1 He was encouraging his hearers to bear the image of Christ themselves, and to praise it in whatever unlikely spots they saw it.

The sticky, fluid culture

A hugely cool thing about influencing networks is that things can stay set up for generations. Our imprint on the culture outlives us. What we are and how we believe and behave, as a nation for example, bears the imprint of culture-changers long-departed. As one of the 16th century Protestant martyrs said to another, as the barbecue underneath him was being lit: ‘we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out’ 2 –and nor has it.

I recently read the resignation letter of the UK’s Lord Chief Justice. He said this: ‘I have been honoured to lead a wholly independent judiciary dedicated to the rule of law, the administration of justice and public service which confidently celebrates its traditions yet has quietly assimilated very many modern working practices.‘ Having worked in bits of the justice system over the years, I tend to agree with him. The judicial types I work with are passionate about justice, rather than, for example, using their position to leverage money from claimants. Who set that culture up? Who maintained and refined it? Generations before us, I suppose, and (while it can be corrupted) it has been embedded and passed down to the current lot of wig-wearers.

The great subversive

Everything we touch or talk about. It’s Advent as I write this 3, and so we’re thinking about the Incarnation, and it makes a lot of sense that God, wanting to reclaim the human species to himself, should deploy the tactic of becoming a single fertilized cell– undermining the whole human network by being born to a teenage mum and raised in a peasant village; embedding himself in the network. As we see churches spreading or having spread through the Mediterranean, through Europe, through all the Americas, through sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific, across the Philippines and China and Indonesia, and now in various irruptions across the Islamic world, and with Christ now standing as a kind of Morning Star for a third of the earth’s inhabitants–his subversive scheme seems to be working.

The quiet power

Drop by beautiful drop. Photo by Rudrendu Sharma on Unsplash

Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.

The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)

When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.

They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.

There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.

It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.

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