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

Carl Honore: ‘In praise of slow’

The slow philosophy is not about doing everything in tortoise mode. It’s less about the speed and more about investing the right amount of time and attention in the problem so that you can solve it. Carl Honoré

My wife pointed this quote to me, which reminded me I’d read Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slow many years ago. I’d forgotten; but it surely influenced me a lot.

I also found this interview with him, which I think is public domain, and indeed used in publicity for his book. So I hope it’s OK to reproduce it here.

Q&A with Carl

What is In Praise of Slow about?

It examines our compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend toward putting on the brakes. It is the unofficial handbook and bible of the Slow Movement. It is published in more than 30 languages and has been a bestseller in many countries. It was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and the inaugural choice for the Huffington Post Book Club. It also featured in a British TV sitcom, Argentina’s version of Big Brother and a TV commercial for the Motorola tablet. The Financial Times said In Praise of Slow is “to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism.”

Is the Slow Movement anti-speed?

Of course not! I’m not an extremist of slowness. I love speed. But faster is not always better. Being Slow means doing everything at the correct speed: quickly, slowly or whatever pace works best. Slow means being present, living each moment fully, putting quality before quantity in everything from work and sex to food and parenting.

Has our obsession with speed has gone too far?

It’s reached the point of absurdity. You can now do courses in Speed Yoga or attend a Drive Thru Funeral. A magazine in Britain even published an article recently on how to bring about an orgasm in 30 seconds! So even in the bedroom it’s, “On your marks, get set, go!” Our speedaholism is out of control, and we all know it.

What inspired you to embrace Slow?

A personal wake-up call. When I caught myself admiring a book of one-minute bedtime stories (Snow White in 60 seconds!), I suddenly realised I was racing through my life instead of living it.

But if we slow down, surely life will pass us by?

On the contrary. Life is what’s happening right here, right now – and only by slowing down can you live it to the full. If you are always rushing, you only skim the surface of things.

How has slowing down changed your life?

Every moment of my day used to be a race against the clock. Now I never feel rushed any more. I do fewer things but I do them better and enjoy them more. I am healthier and have more energy. At work, I am much more productive and creative. I also have time for those little moments that bring meaning and joy to life – reading to my children, sharing a glass of wine with my wife, chatting with a friend, pausing to gaze at a beautiful sunset. I feel so much more alive now.

Why do we live so fast today?

Lots of reasons. Speed is fun, sexy, an adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug and we are addicted. At the same time, the world has become a giant buffet of things to do, consume, experience – and we rush to have it all. The modern workplace also pushes us to work faster and longer while technology encourages us to do everything faster and faster.

What is the main obstacle to slowing down in this fast world?

Fear. Thanks to the powerful taboo against slowness, even just thinking about slowing down makes us feel afraid, guilty or ashamed. Add to that the fear of being alone with our thoughts. Speed is often an instrument of denial, a way of avoiding deeper problems. Instead of facing up to what is going wrong in our lives, we distract ourselves with speed and busyness.

Slowing down can be the antidote to that. It allows us to reflect on the big questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What sort of life should I be leading? How can I make the world a better place? Such questions can be uncomfortable but confronting them ultimately brings greater depth to our lives.

Is the Slow Movement also gaining ground in the workplace?

Very much so. Forward-thinking companies all over the world are looking for ways to help their staff slow down. By giving them more control over their schedules so they can work at their own pace, accelerating and decelerating when it suits them. By limiting working hours. Or by creating quiet spaces for doing yoga, massage or even take a short nap during the workday. The boom in meditation or mindfulness in the corporate world is another sign that business is waking up to the power and wisdom of slowing down. Not long ago the Economist magazine told its readers: “Forget frantic acceleration. Mastering the clock of business is about choosing when to be fast and when to be slow.” And that’s the Economist singing the praises of slowness in the workplace; it’s not Buddhist Monthly or Acupuncture Weekly!

What are the tell-tale symptoms of living too fast?

When you feel tired all the time and like you’re just going through the motions, getting through the many things on your To-Do list but not engaging with them deeply or enjoying them very much. You don’t remember things as vividly when you rush through them. You feel like you’re racing through your life instead of actually living it. Illnesses are often the body’s way of saying, “Enough already, slow down!”

What is the future of the Slow Movement?

The good news is that the Slow movement is growing fast! And as the world gets faster, the need for a counter-current of slowness will grow too. I feel more optimistic now than I did when In Praise of Slow first came out.

But what do you say to people who claim that the world will inevitably go on speeding up and that a Slow revolution is pie in the sky?

I say look at the history books. Take the rise of feminism. In the 60s, when feminists said the world was unjust and the moment for change had come, the mainstream reaction was: No, the world has always been this way. You can’t change it. Go back to the kitchen! But look at the world today. Obviously there is a long way to go to create a world of perfect gender equality, but a woman today could hardly imagine how severely life was limited for her grandmother. I look at my sister and my grandmother and marvel at the change in just two generations. And the green movement has followed a similar arc: it was dismissed as a plaything for hippies and tree-huggers thirty years ago but today is near the top of the political agenda. The message is that the world can change, if we want it to. For a cultural revolution to occur, you need three factors: the need for change; an awareness of the need for change; and people willing to put that change into practice. We now have all three factors in place for the Slow revolution to push on. I think the Slow movement is at the same point as feminism or green-ism was 30 or 40 years ago. We won’t change the world, or make it Slow, by next year. It will take time. The Slow revolution will be slow. But I believe it will happen.

What will a Slow world look like?

It will be a world that is healthy, happy and humane. But you have to realistic. I am no utopian. I am a skeptic by nature. I don’t believe we will ever create a world where everyone does everything at the right speed and no one ever feels rushed. That’s just a fantasy. The world is too complex and interconnected for that. It’s impossible in a world where we have to interact with others. Impatience is also part of being human. I suspect even the Dalai Lama rushes unnecessarily sometimes! Even I forget to slow down from time to time. I face a barrage of requests to give speeches, do interviews, etc from all over the world every day and it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy. But at least our starting point should be to seek the tempo giusto and to expect others to do so too.

What do you hope readers will take away from In Praise of Slow?

I hope that they will pause and reflect on how they lead their lives and how their lives affect the people and the world around them. I guess what I really want is for readers to grasp the very counter-cultural idea that the best way to survive and thrive in the fast-paced modern world is not to speed up but to slow down. And it seems to be working. Every day I open up my inbox and find a few emails from readers around the world who say the book has changed their lives. It’s exciting, and humbling.


My bookshop

I suspect this is the magnificent Toppings bookshop in Ely, Cambridgeshire, arguably the finest bookshop in the East. (And much better than my online effort.) Thanks to Phil Hearing on Unsplash

I’ve been busy for the last few months moving all my blogs to Substack — slowly, as it happens. Once it’s done I’ll let you know. Part of this involves putting all the books I’ve recommended over the years into my own bookshop at Bookshop.org. This site enables you to buy books by post much as you would through Amazon or someone, but a bit from each purchase goes to support independent bricks-and-mortar bookshops. (And some in theory comes to me.)

Creating your own bookshop with all the books that lit you up and changed how you think, or just were great, is the most enormous fun, like surrounding youself with old friends. My shop is still a work a progress but I thought you might like a sneako peeko.

Here’s my bookshop and here’s In Praise of Slow in my bookshop.

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.

For those not feeling Christmassy

I couldn’t resist passing on this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who hangs out on Substack, which platform I’m exploring these days.

She’s mouthy, sweary, tattooed, controversial and generally terrifying to me, but she knows a lot about grace, and she can write. I thank God, and her, for between them making the world a better place.

I quote:

…a gentle reminder that Christ will be born on Christmas with or without us “feeling” Christmas-y. Because this pattern of time, this story, these rituals and practices and songs have gone on long before us and will continue long after us. Sometimes we are floating in that river of faith, just swimming in it and feeling the transcendent warmth of the season. And other times we seem to be standing in just a half inch of the stuff; not even enough to cover our feet. But the power of the river, its source and its destination changes not at all. And both things: submerged in and barely having our feet in are the same. There’s no ranking system at work here. One is not “better” than the other. One does not “count more”. That’s just not how this thing works. Thank God

Nadia Bolz-Weber

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.

If it’s not ‘all in the mind’ quite a lot is.

Gavin Francis’ book Recovery — GP’s take on the neglected art of convalescence –:

has a brilliant example of what good, or harm, our minds can do as part of our well-being; worth quoting. Francis talks about two middle-aged men who ‘a few weeks apart both suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed, ostensibly dead, but who were successfully resuscitated with electric shocks. Both were then fitted with portable electronic defibrillators …[that were] about the shape and size of a matchbox’. If either man collapsed again, ‘the portable defibrillator would sense the change and shock the heart back into a healthy rhythm.’

‘For one of the men, the intimate experience of the proximity of death, the fragility of life and his new reliance on the implanted defibrillator was utterly traumatic. He began to suffer panic attacks and fiddled ceaselessly with the swelling beneath his collarbone. He couldn’t find a way to stop fretting that it might fail. At the time of his cardiac arrest he had been working as an administrator but he found himself unable to go on working. He was afraid to be alone, and his nights became a torment of insomnia.

‘For the other man, the almost identical experience of collapse and then resurrection became an epiphany of gratitude. His new life was a gift, he said, for by rights he should now be dead, and all the tedious, niggling irritations that once troubled him seemed to dissolve. It was enough to be able to breathe this air, walk on this earth, see his grandchildren. He had always lived modestly, but now began to emjoy sumptuous meals, fine wine, and booked holidays to places he would never before have considered visiting.

‘He had died, but then he lived again, and that new life into which he was born seemed one of richness, tenderness and gratitude.’

The powers that be (2)

More about the teaching of Walter Wink, as mentioned last week, in his book The powers that be, which was a later summary of earlier work.

Wink teaches that every institution possesses an ‘outer, physical manifestation’ and ‘an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality’ (p24) and combined they correspond to what the New Testament called ‘powers’, which were a tangible part of life back in New Testament times. Materialism has slanted our impression of them, but perhaps they have not gone away.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:12).

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

Are these ‘powers’ good or bad? It is customary in my part of the church to think of them (or at least the spiritual components) as ‘bad’, spiritual remnants perhaps of an original fall that led to the fall of some spirits into evil; the same worldview as can be found in the Bible and which John Milton used in Paradise Lost. And it is true that Jesus is never recorded as coming across an evil being that he wished to redeem. He apparently wished to expel all of them from his good creation.

In Wink’s view, however, the powers are:

  • Good
  • Fallen
  • Needing redemption.

He argues that:

These three statements must be held together, for each by itself is not only untrue but downright mischievous. We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses as good unless we recognize at the same time that they are fallen. We cannot face their oppressiveness unless we remember that they are also a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will seem to legitimate these Powers and blast any hope for change unless we assert, at the same time, that these Powers can and must be redeemed. But focus on their redemption will lead to utopian disillusionment unless we recognize that their transformation takes place within the limits of the fall.

Wink, op. cit., p 32

Whether or not the Powers can be redeemed (or merely expelled), the material, earthly institutions certainly are created, fallen, and can be redeemed. At the moment this is within the limits prescribed by our current fallen world; in the future it will be fully so, as part of New Creation.

This is eye-opening stuff:

  1. Institutions have a spiritual character as well as a material form.
  2. Institutions are good, fallen, and capable of a degree of redemption.
  3. They will be fully redeemed at the so-called eschaton, the full arrival of the New Creation.

How can the Powers be opposed? How can institutions be redeemed, or at least cleaned up a bit, capturing more of their divine vocation?

I have to skip over a large and brilliant part of his analysis here but the central understanding is that violent overthrow won’t do it. All violent overthrow does is replace one system of spirit-fueled domination with another. A revolution is rightly named: it’s just the turning of the same wheel. What do ‘work’ (and again I am oversimplifying) are the things Jesus taught so directly. Turn the other cheek. Hand over all your clothes if someone takes your cloak. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Feed and water your enemies. You want to lead? Be a servant. You want to line up with God’s rule? Be a child. Jesus himself entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not a charger. He won the day by going to his death like a lamb to the slaughter.

The aim is not conquest, but relationship: humanizing the oppressor, so that oppressors are themselves liberated from being oppressed by their own oppressive behaviour: ‘today, salvation has come to this house.’ These same acts also restore dignity and agency to the victim.

That’s how we ‘win’. And the winning may not be seen in this life, or certainly only partly seen, but it is putting a foothold in eternity, it is filling up our storerooms in heaven, it is investing in the future.

The Powers that Be (1)

In his striking and unusual book, the late theologian Walter Wink writes this:

This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. It sees spirit– the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God –at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship … [It] celebrates a divine reality that pervades every part of our existence.

Walter Wink, The powers that be, 1998, Galilee Doubleday, p 13

Wink points out that ‘Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers” — which occur naturally in New Testament writing — ‘not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems … Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an innner, spiritual reality’ (p24).

This is striking and unusual stuff. As Wink goes on to point out, when it comes to ‘Powers and principalities’, ‘fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual beings in the air … and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists’ (p26).

The elegance of this outlook is that it roots the New Testament worldview into everyday structures of injustice and unrighteousness (or indeed structures of justice and righteouness). So by doing battle against, say, injustice, you are actually resisting spiritual powers, for which the gospel offers weapons and tools.

For example, Ephesians 6 says:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:10-12 NIVUK

This scripture makes a lot of sense in contexts where spiritual forces are rife and obvious, where local industry manufactures charms and amulets, and where you can buy services like spells, curses, protection from the evil eye and love potions. I have worked with many missionaries who have spent time in those contexts and found New Testament-type solutions beneficial and fruitful.

It’s a lot harder though, in secular and materialist contexts, to know quite what to do with all these scriptures.

Wink offers a further insight. These powers, he claims, become fallen and demonic when they pursue ‘a vocation other than the one for which God created’ them (p29). So, calling an institution to be just and and upright and to fulfill the purpose God intends for it, is not just a matter of (for example) campaigning but is also a spiritual conflict requiring the kind of spiritual weaponry that the gospel offers. This is because the institution involved has a spiritual face as well as a material one.

This makes a lot of sense.

  • Ir explains why in the book of Revelation, letters are written to ‘the angel’ of each of the seven Asia Minor churches — not to the pastor, or the leadership team, or the congregation, but to the spiritual reality, the culture, that they together contribute to and embody.
  • It explains why in the same book, earthly realities are described withthe imaginative imagery of dragons, beasts and whores, a spiritual view of human institutions.
  • It helps make sense of the Beatitudes, which sees human attitudes and behaviours as having potency as spiritual weapons: Are you spiritually bankrupt? You’re blessed: yours is the reign of heaven (Matthew 5:3, my paraphrase).

Here’s his summary:

Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequences of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestation can the total structure be transformed.

Wink, op.cit., p 31

There’s more to come.

Convalescence, the lost-ish art

Photo by Isaac Quick on Unsplash

Just finished an illuminating book called ‘Recovery’ by practicising GP Dr Gavin Francis. I am drawn back again to the idea of healing (I was in hospital when I wrote this) and really enjoyed how this book taught me things I’d previously groped towards. Some snippets:

Psycho-social

We fall ill in ways that our profoundly influenced by our past experiences and expectations, and the same can be said of our paths to recovery. (p8)

Green and growing

He talks of the difference Florence Nightingale made in the Crimea, how hospitals should have ‘the proper use of fresh air, light, warmth, cleanliness, quiet, and the proper selection and administration of diet’. (p 13, quoting Nightingale’s own 1859 Notes on Nursing). Windows should look out something green and growing. After her arrival in 1854, the rate of soldiers dying from their wounds fell from 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, to 1 in 50

Convalescence

But in changing times and with new drugs something has been lost:

It’s not possible for me now, as a GP, to admit a frail, elderly patient somewhere for nursing care and convalescence alone – the hospital gates don’t open unless there’s a medical diagnosis, and a plan in place that prioritises getting the patient out again as soon as possible (p15).

You might not find ‘convalescence’ or ‘recovery’ as a heading in the medical textbooks but you will find ‘post-viral fatigue’… Long-term symptoms from viral infections will be different for everyone, but can include varying amounts of breathlessness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mood changes, insomnia, weight-loss, exhaustion, muscle weakness, joint stiffness and flashbacks.

All these are to be considered normal – not evidence that recovery has stalled or is going (p20) into reverse.

Pacing

He suggests ‘pacing’ as the route forward – not the boom and bust cycle of activity and exhaustion, but steady efforts, frequent rests, small meals, not doing much for an hour after a meal, getting fresh air, sitting down a lot, avoiding exerting. With boom and bust, your world narrows; with careful pacing, it slowly widens.

Work aids recovery

He talks about the world of sick-notes, and that doctors are better coaches than judges. ‘Many of the patients I sign off from the obligation to find a job could undoubtedly work in some capacity, at something, if support were available to help them do it… Work aids recovery in all sorts of ways… If I could sign my patients up to a supportive back-to-work scheme, rather than simply signing them off sick, I would‘ (p27)

A misfortune whose cost should be shared

He notes Aneurin Bevin’s championing of the idea that illness is ‘neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalised but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community’ (p 29. Bevan was borrowing his ideas from T H Marshall, a sociologist.)