Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Dead heroes are safer - Bonhoeffer, King and Aung San Suu Kyi


"What would have happened to Bonhoeffer if he had survived?"  The question was asked me while we were dutifully reflecting with our neighbour at the end of a lecture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer at IBTSC, Amsterdam*.  My immediate response was that we wouldn't have liked him.  I've been thinking why I said that.

The lecture had already demonstrated why we might not have liked Bonhoeffer while he was serving a German ex-pat church in Spain.  He had given a series of lectures in which he showed himself supportive of notions of the superiority of his own people and of the legitimacy of war.  He was a product of his times and culture.  The theme of the IBTSC lecture+ was that it was while he was studying later at Union Theological Seminary in New York and became involved with a black Baptist church in Harlem, a district experiencing a cultural renaissance (search for Harlem Renaissance, it's fascinating), that he experience a change of perspective.  This led to the writings of Bonhoeffer that have been so influential for many of us.  An enduring legacy.  It may trouble us because there's something in us that would prefer to exercise discipleship that didn't make demands on our comfortable self-interested existences and many of us are so invested in the systems and trappings of organised religion that religionless Christianity seems like an existential threat.  But we don't set him aside or traduce him because of that.

In a similar way, the original question raised itself after watching "King: a filmed record ... Montgomery to Memphis".  We are still inspired and humbled by King's passion for God and for justice because one demands the other.  We are still confronted by the same and new manifestations of racism, denial of rights, poverty and war against which he protested and demonstrated.  He still challenges us with his stance of non-violence in the face of the most extreme provocation.  An enduring legacy even though he shames our feeble attempts to work for justice.

So why are dead heroes safer?  Two reasons, until I think of more.

Heroes are human.  They are fallible just like the rest of us.  They are likely to get things wrong, perhaps in a disastrous way.  Their reputation can easily and quickly shredded.  This is why Aung San Suu Kyi is in the title.  A prime example of someone who earned the respect of most of the world.  Who was lauded for her principles and who would have continued to be if the authorities had found a way of executing her.  The reality of her life and actions recently has been been terrible and she has lost her moral authority.  Maybe history will take a more nuance view but we cannot know that now.  Dead heroes can make no new mistakes - they are safe.  They don't disappoint.

We can construct dead heroes in our our own image or one convenient to our way of thinking and acting.  Both Bonhoeffer and King have been co-opted to all kinds of causes.  Their writings and historical actions can be treated like plasticine and moulded into all kinds of shapes. They are not around to gainsay. They are safe to play with.

Who knows what would have happened had Bonhoeffer and King been allowed to live until a ripe old age?  We live in an age where we seem to take pleasure in building people up so that we can knock them down.  Even if we didn't, we are all only human and we all disappoint, at some time or other, those who expect better of us. Dead heroes are safer.


* IBTSC - International Baptist Theological Study Centre, formerly the International Baptist Theological Centre in Prague.
+ You can see the lecture online - https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=1GaBecIfnJw 

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Poverty is a political choice - for the government, that is.

The report of the U.N. rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has come at a good time for the UK government.  We are are all distracted by the will she/won't she, will they/won't they of the Brexit draft agreement fallout.

If we weren't distracted, we would be appalled at his findings.  After all, we have just given tens of millions of pounds to the BBC Children in Need telethon.  We are not an uncaring society.  

However, it seems we have an uncaring government who have sacrificed the wellbeing of a whole swathe of society on the altar of political dogma.  We have a system that is "punitive, mean-spirited and often callous".  Child poverty is at a level that is "not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster".  One phrase is particularly damning: "poverty is a political choice".  Just to be clear, a political choice of government not of those who are poor.

We shouldn't be surprised as we have heard all this before (and had it ignored) from charities, foundations and churches.  What on earth has made us believe that the poor must suffer for the economic good of the country?  The rich and powerful remain untouched and, indeed, reap the benefits.  Just to prove that we humans learn nothing, the Hebrew prophet, Amos, was saying the same thing a few thousand years ago.

Children in Need drew our attention to lots of creative projects staffed by skilled and caring people that really make a difference.  Some of those were of a kind that would have been supported by local government before their budgets were cut the bone.  Things do still happen because people want a good society.  Voluntary effort, though, cannot on its own compensate for a callous regime.

Naturally, the government has rejected the report.  Well, they would, wouldn't they.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Socialism and pacifism in a bombed city.



My Mum and Dad didn't have many photos in the house.  There was only one small black and white framed photograph on the mantelpiece in the living room; of Revd Hugh Ingli James.

Ingli James had made a profound impression on them as minister of Queen's Road Baptist Church, Coventry 1931-43.  They were both young people and then members there.  Ingli James was, by all accounts, a powerful preacher, reflecting his Welsh roots - a passionate advocate for Jesus Christ.

He was an unashamed socialist and a pacifist.  He wasn't a Christian and a socialist and pacifist.  The two were an inexorable consequence of  faith in Jesus Christ.  The first might have raised eyebrows among some.  The second was a controversial in a city ripped apart by bombing.  He challenged people to see that their faith in Christ had to work out in social justice and that narrow patriotism with its consequence, war, should be renounced.  During the Depression, the church opened a centre for the unemployed and engaged in political campaigns.  Several members became conscientious objectors when conscription was introduced.  However, he faithfully wrote to those who, willingly or unwillingly, enlisted and found themselves in hard places.

Ingli James was not alone in his sentiments in Coventry.  Three days after Coventry cathedral was destroyed by bombing on 14 November 1940, two charred timbers were lashed together to form a cross, three medieval roof nails were joined to form a cross and on the wall was written "Father forgive".

We still need such as him.










Only United in Peacetime



"Workers of the world unite in peacetime - but in war slit one another's throats". A remark by Rosa Luxemburg, the German Marxist (1871-1919), I read in an article the other day. 

If you substitute Christians for workers, the phrase asks a sharp question about the churches in western europe and north america in the first half of the 20th century (and beyond). We had a rich history of internationalism and developing peaceful relations - not surprising given the nature of the Christian gospel. This is dumped by the majority at the national call to arms. Presuming that our remembrance reflections are not for one day only, it's an issue worth continuing to ponder.

A former colleague and friend, Jane Stranz, was reflecting on the German churches' majority support for the Nazis and wrote: "society evangelises us much more efficiently than the gospel does".

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The monster with no name



Some things are difficult to get my head around.  Film and theatre - no problem.  Live performances of plays, ballet and opera screened direct to cinemas - a bit strange having a theatre experience in a cinema space but it makes sense.  Showing a recording of a live theatre performance in a cinema many months later feels very strange.  However, it gave us to catch up with Danny Boyle's acclaimed production of Frankenstein from the National Theatre.  The superlatives of the time were justified, in spite of not getting the full effect of being present in the auditorium.


The new play from the book is powerful in bringing out several themes such as the nature of humanity, prejudice and the inter-dependence of creator and created.  But it was the issue of the name of the"monster" that has been running round my head.  I use the term "monster" as shorthand but we have to recognise that it is not a name but is a perjorative description.


Boyle has said that he wanted to give the "monster" a voice.  In the play he turns from an incoherent being at his creation into someone who aware, well read and articulate (in content, albeit with a speech defect).  But, as in the book, he has no name.  He describes himself as an Adam to Frankenstein the creator but he does not claim that name, which anyway is a descriptor.


So why, I ask myself, does Frankenstein not give him a name and why does he not give himself a name when he has the intellectual capacity and literary knowledge to do so?


Giving a name or knowing a name is often understood to give power over a person.  Traditionally, parents express their authority over a child by naming them.  Traditionally, a wife took the husband's name on marriage to indicate whose authority she was now under.  People converting to Christianity have often taken a new name, a Christian name, to indicate that they are now under Christ's authority.  I could go on about this but I hope it makes the point.


For Frankenstein to name his creation, it would imply taking responsibility for his work.  For the "monster" to name himself, it would mean taking responsibility for himself, becoming his own person.  So here we have the tragedy - neither wants to be or is capable of being fully human.  The non-humanity is not just a feature of the creation but of the creator too.


In the end, they disappear from sight, ineluctably bound together in their inhumanity, to their mutual destruction.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Greater Manchester mayor?

Being old. I can remember things (at the same time as forgetting things). In 1974, England had a major reorganisation of local government. In Greater Manchester, a hotchpotch of smaller and larger local councils were coalesced into 10 metropolitan borough councils with a Greater Manchester council having responsibility for county wide strategic issues. The churches even responded by setting up the Greater Manchester County Ecumenical Council to coordinate their work across the county and to engage with local government.

Mrs Thatcher abolished metropolitan county councils in 1986 - they tended to be Labour and she didn't like local government anyway. Some of the Greater Manchester county council's responsibilities were given to the 10 boroughts, others had to be fulfilled by several ad hoc coordinating committees. Some of these have been reasonably successful - the development of the Metrolink tram system and support for the arts, for example. However, their success was only possible because they built on what had already been set up under the Greater Manchester Council.

Now, 40 years on, the current government has had an idea - Greater Manchester would flourish (economically, of course, what else matters) if there was proper strategic planning and direction. Their answer is an elected Mayor with those responsibilities. This does have the benefit of democratic appointment but not the checks and balances of accountability between mayoral elections. A region like Greater Manchester does need some strategic authority with resources. So far so good. Better a sinner that repents!

However, I can't help but wonder why a government facing economic problems should decide to give £1 billion to Greater Manchester. Of course, there is great merit in spending decisions being taken at as local a level as possible rather than by people in London. For a government, though, there is the happy position of being able to say, when people complain about lack of funding,that decisions were taken by your Mayor not by us. The reality is that the government's generosity is an illusion. Local government is being systematically starved of funding with ongoing cuts to their budgets with front line services on which many depend being destroyed. Is the appointment of a mayor a way of deflecting anger?

A Greater Manchester mayor as Trojan horse? Beware Greeks (or governments in this case) bearing gifts!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The victory of schooling?

It wasn’t that many decades ago when the landscape was clear. Schooling was for the majority – to equip them for their social position and economic role in society. Education was for the few - to make them the cultured and knowledgeable masters, if not of the universe at least of the empire. By their own efforts and by associating together, often in the non-conformist churches, ordinary people claimed education as their right too. Whatever the faults of the education reforms of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods, it might have been thought that things were moving in that direction. Melissa Benn’s excellent descriptive and analytic School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education exposes what a mess we find ourselves in, particularly after the efforts of the current and two previous governments.

My own conclusion, which has been reinforced by the book, is that schooling has won and education has lost, at least in the medium term. England (the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments may prove wiser) seems to have set itself on a course where we will end up with the majority going to schools which are run by for-profit bodies but paid for by the state. At the other end of the scale a few will go to schools run by non-profit foundations (such as the current independent schools) paid for privately by high fees. There will, of course, be some schools that fall somewhere between the extremes.

The schools for the majority will concentrate on useful subjects (that is useful to employers) with measurable results and with a regime that will emphasise unquestioning compliance. If you thought it is bad now, you should look closely at what some ‘flagship’ schools are doing. Financially, they will be squeezed by the desire for providers to pay dividends to their shareholders and the state’s desire to pay as little as possible. An education will be offered by the better independent schools where it will be possible to have resources for music, drama, art and sports; to learn religion and poetry and so on. In other words, all those areas and interactions that enrich our lives and enable us to be whole persons. Already such schools charge fees above the level of most families’ total annual income and that disparity will only increase in the future.

So the future begins to look like the past, though without children suffering from rickets – except that a recent news report revealed that rickets was re-emerging as a childhood disease in England. Shame on us.