Alexei Navalny’s slow work

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Alexei Navalny. I thought, Mandela-like, he was going to survive prison and see the regime he opposed collapse around him. Not to be. But how brave, how slow, how peace-loving it was to return to Russia when he didn’t need to, and take his stand with determination and wit, retaining a sense of fun even if all around him was grim. This is the powerless frightening the life out of the powerful; President Putin could not evidently bring himself to utter his name.

It was quite something to discover that this Russia hero had a Christian faith. I’m grateful to blogger Diane Butler-Bass for this slightly redacted version of his testimony. (You can find more of her here, and I enjoy her weekly writing)

In prison, apparently, he used to pretend he was on a spaceflight–hence the discomfort–towards a new Russia, one that was Europe-like in its democracy and rule of law, but Russia-like in its history and greatness. He didn’t see it yet. Instead the call from his Lord was: ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’.

The fact is that I am a believer, which, in general, rather serves as an example of constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly people are atheists, I myself was quite militant.

But now I am a believer, and this helps me a lot in my work, because everything becomes much, much simpler. I think less, there are fewer dilemmas in my life — because there is a book (editorial note: the Bible) in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what needs to be done in each situation. It’s not always easy, of course, to follow this book, but in general I try.

And therefore, as I already said, it is easier for me, probably than many others, to get involved in politics.

A person recently wrote to me: “Navalny, what is everyone writing to you: ‘Hold on, don’t give up, be patient, grit your teeth? Why do you have to endure it?’ I think you said in an interview that you believe in God. And it is said: ‘Blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ Well, that’s great for you, then!”

And I thought — wow, this person understands me so well!

It’s not that I’m great, but I’ve always perceived this specific commandment as more or less an instruction for action. And so, of course, not really enjoying the place where I am, nevertheless, I do not have any regrets about coming back, about what I do. Because I did everything right. On the contrary, I feel such satisfaction or something. Because at some difficult moment I did as expected according to the instructions, and did not betray the commandment…

For a modern person this whole commandment — “blessed, thirsty, hungering for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” — sounds very pompous. People who say things like that are supposed to be, quite frankly, crazy. Crazy strange people are sitting there with disheveled hair in their cell and, therefore, trying to cheer themselves up with something. Although, of course, they are lonely, they are loners, no one needs them. And this is the most important thing. Our power, the system is trying to tell such people: “You are lonely, you are a loner.”

It is important to intimidate first, and then show that you are alone. Well, because what normal, adequate people adhere to some kind of commandment. The thing about loneliness is very important. It is very important as a goal of power. Excellent, by the way, one of the wonderful philosophers named Luna Lovegood said about this. Remember this was in Harry Potter? And talking to Harry Potter during some difficult times, she told him: “It’s important not to feel lonely, because, of course, if I were Voldemort, I would really like you to feel lonely.” Of course, of course, our Voldemort in the palace wants this too….

I don’t feel alone at all. And I’ll explain why. Because this construction — “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” — it seems somehow exotic, strange, but in fact this is the main political idea that now exists in Russia…

This is very important, despite the fact that our country now, of course, is built on injustice, and we are constantly faced with injustice. We see the worst kind of injustice — armed injustice. Nevertheless, we see that at the same time millions of people, tens of millions of people, want the truth. They want to achieve the truth, and sooner or later they will achieve it. They will be satisfied.

This is the truth, and you can’t argue against it. And sooner or later these people who want the truth will achieve their goal, they will be satisfied.

And the important thing that I want to tell you, and in your person, you, the prosecutor, in general, all the authorities and all the people, is that it is important not to be afraid of these people. And do not be afraid of those who seek the truth.

Alexei Navalny

Compounding

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

My grandad was disabled because, as an 18-year-old, a month or two before the Armistice in the first war, he was gassed. He ended up losing a lung. All his life he had a mighty cough, and he never slept lying down. I knew him and look like him and apparently act like him.

Possibly he would have praised the power of compounding that meant his life was easier than his father’s. My great-grandad was bedridden with gangrene, cared for by his wife, in a small house with few luxuries beyond a piano. (There were not enough chairs, for example, so my grandad ate his meals standing up as a child.)

The compounding wealth and compounding technology had meant my grandad had a job and a comfortable home, all supplied by the council, and electricity and water and TV and a pension and holidays. The boy who’d run down the street when someone said, ‘Look, a car!’, grew to be the old man who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and he was amazed and grateful for it all.

My memory of him is seated in his chair, by the coal fire, books by his feet, reading, reading (though not when we grandchildren were around when his sense of fun gave full rein). He was a keen socialist, and a Methodist preacher, and he belonged to that era when town councils and public funds supplied things for the common good–like libraries and education–and socialism and the welfare state sort-of worked.

Two generations on and what has compounding achieving? Economic compounding means welfare benefits are more generous and people’s means are on average greater. Technological compounding means I have computers and the internet, an electric bike and electric buggy, a pacemaker in my chest that supplies the heartbeats I need. Today we test drove a new car and I’ve recently joined a gym, whose machines adjust themselves to me, work out a fitness scheme, and lead me into it. None of this is merited. I have just floated on the rising tide of compounding: other people making little steps to make things good or better, to do things well, repeated and repeated and repeated.

Surely this points to the power of quiet revolution, of patient progress, of slow purposefulness. This tide is rising all over the world, subverted constantly by evil, but rising, rising.

The lube

Without it, the world grinds and splinters and crunches.

Photo by jonathan ocampo on Unsplash

Here’s a thing. I was reading one feminist criticising another and she accused her of being ‘joyless.’

It is a missing piece.

You can be campaigning for social justice, but if you’re joyless you’re a bit brutal.

You can be a brave single mum, but if you’re joyless, you’re just tired and hard.

You can be someone carrying heavy responsibilities and onerous duties but if you have not joy you’re just stressy and self-pitying.

You can be working hard for very needy people, but joyless, you’re not too attractive a person to be with.

Joy lightens loads and eases tensions. It makes smooth work of heavy work. Joy respects the opponent. Joy understands we’re all broken, all needy, all in pieces, only anything at all because we’ve been scooped up and smiled on and loved. Joy looks into the grimmness but isn’t itself begrimed. Joy peers into the depths of darkness but finds a spark.

Joy is the lube.

Hope valley

Photo by Felix on Unsplash

Hope Valley is a place, in the English Peak District, where our men’s breakfast group held one of our annual walking weekends.

It’s also an emotional space, a rather life-saving one. So much about our world seems never to budge. The wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are in palaces. Lives are snuffed out at a dictator’s whim. Armies clash, soldiers die, loved ones mourn. Shells blow futures to smithereens. Praying people pray and pray and nothing happens.

‘God,’ said Desmond Tutu (I paraphrase), ‘we know you’re on the side of the right, but couldn’t you make it a little more obvious?”The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,’ famously quoted Martin Luther King.

Perhaps I could be allowed to add: sometimes this arc of history seems very long, longer than scurrying our little human lives can bear. Many lives aren’t long enough to see the good arrive.

Nor does the arc always bend in entirely pleasing ways. Mandela became president of South Africa, a happy geometry. Not long afterwards he was followed by a thief who plundered the country, rather than built it, and then by a good person, but who has, by some accounts, yet to get a grip. So a bad thing was followed by a different bad thing (plunder) and then by another different bad thing (unmended brokenness).

That arc of history has non-linear qualities. It wobbles. Sometimes it veers in the wrong direction.

Which is why you need hope, and why, for now, it’s a valley.

Thanks to hope we can know that the arc will be tamed someday, that symmetry will be restored.

That the arc will come to rest on a mountaintop.

The short-cut: a little frisson of freedom, soon disappointing

Here’s St Augustine, who, I’m realizing, did for Christian thought in the City of God roughly what Newton did for physics in the Principia Mathematica.

St Augustine is out to get you. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

This starts being about pears, and is from Augustine’s Confessions. You have to take a slightly deep breath, but if you come out from under it, it’s worth keeping going.

A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked. Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!

So I think what he’s saying is that he and his fellow lewd young fellows, after scandalously playing in the streets, ransacked a pear tree: not because they needed the pears, but just for the fun of it. But why? after a few more paragraphs, he tells us:

I might mimic a maimed liberty by doing with impunity things unpermitted me. 1

So: he knows the rules. But he tastes a kind of freedom by breaking the rules. It’s a ‘maimed freedom’. But it’s still a kind of freedom.

This is so true about everything and sits exactly at the dividing line between the short-cut and the slow. Rule breaking feels like the way to get stuff done. ‘Move fast and break things’ is now a Silicon Valley cliche. But (according to Augustine), the result is ‘a maimed freedom’.

In my younger days I watched two people I know well each make a large amount of money by starting their own businesses. (They didn’t know each other.) I observed that both broke the rules to get where they did. It would complete the narrative arc if I were able to say that both now regret it. I can’t. I’m not sure they do regret it, though each has changed focus somewhat.

But I do think that all the times we let our greed and impatience get the better of us, as I do, we invest in a maimed freedom, not the real thing. And my mate Augustine backs me up.

The quiet revolution in the churches (part 2)

Photo by Bikash Guragai on Unsplash

This is something fascinating going on in Britain (and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe and the Western world):

  • Society is relying more on the social contribution of churches
  • Church attendance is declining
  • Churches are discovering that social action, church growth and discipleship belong inextricably together, and together open the way forward for a season of fresh growth, relevance and impact for the Church.

It is a quiet, slow-burn, patient revolution, my favourite type. It is not centrally organized, but spontaneously has arisen all over the nation. It developed through a decade of austerity and was shocked into further action by the pandemic. I think in a career of observing church trends in the UK, it is the most encouraging thing I have ever seen. It builds on and with other trends in the UK that have moved the needle: the rise of beautiful worship; the flourishing of the alpha course; the development of church-planting churches, networks and movements. There is probably a bunch of dying that the Church still needs to do, but perhaps for the first time in a generation, or longer, there are railway tracks heading into a bright future, and the Church is riding on them.

Here’s a quote from a report produced by the Theos thinktank in 2020, just as the worst of the pandemic was being felt:

Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to it. 1

The report noted that ‘the Church grows in number and depth when it is present in and connected to its local area, which may be manifested through its social action.’ Its longevity and presence make it well placed. Hospitality and generosity are significant. And ‘participation in social action can also offer a practical route into faith for people who weren’t previously part of the church community.’2

Exciting stuff. And it doesn’t involve massaging church statistics until something positive is squeezed out. It’s everywhere. I see it in the Christmas letters I receive from friends. I see it in my own church which, in other ways, is not exactly a picture of glowing health. I see it elsewhere in Cambridge. And I read it in reports like this one.

A quiet revolution in the churches (part 1)

In the last dozen years, as government cuts have taken hold, churches have stepped in to provide help to some of the most needy in the country. This has been a widespread, nationally significant movement, and politicians are beginning to notice. If this work continues and develop, it could transform our national life and our politics.

This was the summary of a message we heard from Sir Stephen Timms MP, who spoke at our Christmas Men’s Breakfast in my local church, St Martin’s in Cambridge in December 2023.

Hope made visible

He described a colleague of his (now a life peer on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords), who had become chairman of the Refugee Council.

Her job entailed visiting projects supporting refugees all over the country. The most remarkable ones, often involving sacrificial service by the volunteers, were run by churches.

‘To her complete surprise, she found lives characterized by the fruitfulness that Paul writes about in his epistle to the Galatians.

‘[Maeve Sherlock] decided to find out more about this; she attended church in Islington, then an Alpha course. In 2010 she became a member of the House of Lords; in 2018 was ordained a deacon and from last year became non-stipendiary minister in St Nicholas’ church in central Durham, as well as being on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords.’

Sir Stephen went on:

‘What I want to argue this morning is with things in the country in such a depressing state, and with so many things apparently not working as they should do, more and more people are looking to the churches, and are finding something different there, something better, something more hopeful … we need that fruitfulness to transform our politics.’

Supercharged by the pandemic

He described when he was leader of Newham council, more than twenty five years ago, that they were always polite to churches, but they never worked with them as partners.

The pandemic revealed a different picture than the common picture of church decline. He described getting two emails from constituents saying they had no food; and another email from the current elected mayor of Newham saying that a certain vicar, if contacted before 10am, would get a food parcel delivered before 6pm that day. Stephen tried this at the beginning of the lockdown, Good Friday 2020, and it worked. Many people, with no prior connection to the churches, became dependent on the churches for the basics for living.

The all-party group on faith and society commissioned a report, available on their website, published in Nov 2020, about faith groups and local councils in the pandemic, revealing that all over the country, faith groups were the ones providing help.

This was a surprise. The default for council officers was that working with faith groups was too difficult and complicated; either faith groups would spend any money given on converting people, or they’d favour their own adherents. ‘But come the pandemic lockdown, there wasn’t anybody else …

‘Faith groups uniquely had the premises, the volunteers, and the motivation, and the connection with people needing help that no-one else had.

‘Far from [churches] being “on the way out,” it turned out, in this decade, when the crunch came, communities became completely dependent on their churches.’

Foodbanks

All the Trussel Trust foodbacks are based in churches. Churches were unique in their capacity to help. They exemplified the ‘big society’.

Christians against poverty

Another high-impact Christian initiative is ‘Christians against poverty‘, founded in Bradford. They support people in debt and train church members as debt counsellors. Sir Stephen also mentioned churches providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming refugees, and facilitating street pastors.

Nationally significant

MPs are noticing these developments. Nowadays the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, once desultory, now packs Westminster Hall.

Quoting a historian:

Between 1780 and 1850, the English ceased to be one of the world’s most agressive, rowdy, outspoken, cruel and bloodthirsty nations and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly and goodly-minded …

‘I think that transformation was a really really positive transformation which all of us are continuing to benefit from to this day and how huge were the benefits of that fruitfulness which exploded all over the country, including the transformation of our politics.

‘And I think that the state we are in now requires another awakening on a similar scale and on the same lines. And I am one of those who thinks it could happen and who hopes that it will.’

Not many of the recipients of those services are coming to faith. But people are coming to faith but in a different way. Theos [the thinktank] found that others in the community, seeing what the churches are doing, offer to help out.. and they are the ones who end up coming to faith.

‘Churches are doing the heavy lifting to support their communities in very very difficult times.’

Sir Stephen’s talk is available here.

The power of the small

I wrote some years ago about fractals, objects that are similar whether viewed on large scale or a small scale. For example, the way trees branch is the same whether you look at a whole tree or just a small portion of the branch. They are ‘self-similar across scales’, which is to say, fractal.

photo of bare tree under clear blue sky
Mathematically and theologically significant. Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Everything is infinitely small compared to God so (to God) the pattern presumably matters more than the size.

So it isn’t surprising that fractal behaviour crops up whenever we consider God at work. Parables–picturing God at work–are self-similar across scales. Is the parable of the sower about the history of nations? Or of a single small tribe? Or of a single human heart? It’s self-similar across scales, so it applies equally to all of them.

The pattern matters more than the size

Faithfulness is fractal. If you are faithful in a little thing, you will be entrusted with much. One who is faithful in small things will be understood to be faithful in big things too. The pattern is the thing; the size doesn’t much matter in the eyes of God.

This is a stunning fact when you hold it up against our desires for prestige or respect or generally just to be associated with big stuff. Two things stand out to me, one of them relevant to this advent season.

  1. The young woman caring for the infant Jesus, wiping his bum, burping him, rocking him to sleep, was supplying exactly the faithfulness needed at that moment; enough faithfulness to save a whole Universe.
  2. Our smallest faithful actions shine out in God’s eyes like stars– a secret of a life of patient revolution.

Book reviews for Christmas

This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.

I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’

All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.

I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.



View all my reviews

Healing and the end of life

Not that I am personally planning on calling it quits any time soon, but I was wondering recently what ‘healing’ looks like in the context of the end of our lives.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

We don’t know if this will be relevant for us, of course. Some friends of mine have been snuffed out without much time to do anything about it. Some apparently didn’t know it was going to happen. But most of my late friends and family had plenty of warning.

One part of healing near the end of life is, of course, that your life doesn’t end, you recover, and go on to see many good days.

But it occurred to me recently there is such thing as a ‘time to die’. However good or bad or complete has been our life, whether its conclusion will be bitterly painful or a blessed relief, our impact on the world is over, our days are winding down, this is it.

I wonder if ‘healing’ in this context isn’t about making peace with that fact; and going on to make peace with as much in your life as you can, and especially with God.

What’s fun about this idea is that it gives you back some agency. You’re in charge again. You have accepted the big fact (you’re mortal) and now you’re free again, to love and conclude things as you see fit, and as best you can.