Readers of UK news will know that in the last 24 hours the Labout Party has run into a predictable storm of criticism over the way it has mishandled anti- Semitic remarks made by one of its MP’s and by the chair of its National Executive. In fact, both of these offenders were suspended speedily, but its leader seemed reluctant to admit that these remarks were evidence of a crisis in the party.

The mass media, ever -ready to talk up a crisis because they need to create interest in their reporting, have not helped the public to understand the issue, as they probably do not understand it themselves.

Ken Livingstone, stupid prejudice

People of so-called left wing views tend to be critical of Israel, because of its despicable treatment of Palestinians both inside of Israel and outside it. They point to the quasi -apartheid by which Palestinians in Israel are second class citizens and to their brutal expulsion from areas of the occupied territories that Israel wants to settle. Patient accumulators of evidence like Noam Chomsky have shown how in partnership with the USA, Israel has become one of the most efficient security states in the world, with a deadly secret service, a brutal state apparatus for border control, and an army ready to kill anyone who dares to oppose it.

Honest Israelis admit the facts to which people like Chomsky point, but provide the sad justification that Israel is the only state in the world which has faced continual threats to its existence since it was founded. While such citizens mourn the excesses of their own forces, they point out that their cause is constantly undermined by the refusal of Palestinian organisations to affirm its right to to exist, by frequent acts of terrorism, and by the self-serving plots of the big Islamic states, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the growing threat from Jihadis like Daesh.

This defence is not entirely convincing but it does suggest that violence by or on behalf of Palestinians against Israel has had little success other than to provide a justification for Israeli violence against them. At the same time it is evident that the basic USA-Israeli opposition to Palestinians and their allies has fuelled and continues to fuel very dangerous conflicts whose effects are felt far beyond the Middle East. Chomsky thinks that the USA – Israel alliance is the most dangerous in the world.

West Bank Wall

Not everyone accepts the above analysis, but perhaps all can agree that nothing is helped by those on both sides of the argument who fail to distinguish Israel’s citizens from its Government, and Jewish people from both.

As always, however, the sceptical observer has to ask of the present media storm, “Cui Bono? For whom is it good?”

Clearly it is good for the Israeli Government, its agents, and its supporters.

After all, if anyone is to blame for the confusion between Israel and Jews, it is those who have repeatedly justified Israel’s  brutal actions by talking about the holocaust. When it helps its propaganda, Israel is only too ready to identify itself with Jewish people in history and throughout the world; to publicise itself as a refuge for Jewish people; and to seek the support of Jewish people everywhere. (This stance is often called “Zionism ” by its opponents, but I would prefer to keep that word for a specific religious/ political movement with a specific history.)

A UK “crisis” which suggests that critics of Israel are all anti-Semites, must be relished by the Israeli Government and its supporters and may have been encouraged by them. That possibility does not excuse the stupid prejudices of the Labour MP and Senior Official who have been disciplined, but it does justify some caution when listening to those who tell us that anti-semitism is “endemic in the hard left.”

The continued life of the phrase “anti- Semitic” is also assisted by those who support the Israeli government. The term “Semite” has been abandoned by ethnographers as misleading, because it originated in 19th century German linguistic scholarship to describe a group of ancient middle eastern and North African languages, one of which is Hebrew and another ancient Arabic. The Qur’an is written in a Semitic language; indeed if  Mohammed is taken literally y, God spoke in a Semitic language. Ancient Chaldeans, Syrians, Phoenicians and Ethiopians spoke Semitic languages as their descendants do today. Genetic research however does not show an identity amongst these peoples. The clumsy categories of 19th century scholarship which assisted damaging stereotypes of “races” have been exposed and ditched by modern investigators.image

The racist term “Semite” was used first in Germany, and then elsewhere, to stigmatise Jewish citizens, which gives some justification to its modern use by defenders of Israel. But if it means anything, it refers to people who speak one of the Semitic group of languages, such as Arabs and some North Africans, as well as Israelis.

It isn’t hard to guess what the man killed by the Romans as ‘king of the Jews’ would make of all this. He was proud of the history and tradition of his people, but refused allegiance to jihadis who advocated holy war against the Roman invader. If once he denigrated a woman as non- Jewish, he learned from her to abandon that prejudice.He was a passionate advocate of non-violent speech and action, and suffered rather than depart from them. In today’s  wars of propaganda he urges his followers to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

“If the puppets are misbehaving, always ask who’s pulling the strings.” (Hasidic Proverb)


In 1773 the French philosopher Diderot wrote of how, during a dinner at the house of Joseph Neckar, the influential statesman, his views were sharply criticised and he found himself unable to think of a smart reply until he was on his way out of the house, at the “foot of the staircase.” This confession must have touched a cord with others because there soon developed a French expression, “l’esprit d’escalier” or “staircase wit” which referred to the smart replies we can all invent when it’s too late.  Genuine wits are always relaxed enough to provide an immediate response. Charged with having failed to attend the funeral of a man he disliked, Mark Twain replied, “I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”image

Our chagrin at not being ready with a smart reply is linked to a much more serious  regret: at being unready to respond as we would have wished to an important test of our humanity. I wanted to speak up for the victim of abuse, but I didn’t want to be unpopular…….I meant to offer significant help to a friend in trouble, but we were about to go on holiday……..I knew what was happening in our workplace was wrong but I didn’t blow the whistle because after all my job supported my family………… I wanted to stand up for someone who had been disgraced but then I wondered if they’d expose my secrets as well…….

This kind of unreadiness is serious because often the chance to do the right thing passes and all I can hope is that I’ve learned from my failure. But then the next test attacks a different weakness and once more I’m  left telling myself afterwards, at the foot of the stairs, what I ought to have done. That’s why I have such an admiration for those who live boldly and are ready for the tests when they come.

I realised recently that Jesus was like that. It’s not a theme much examined by bible scholars or theologians, but Jesus as a man subject to frequent tests which he was always ready to meet, is a theme of the Gospels, and of the Letter to Hebrews. Matthew, Mark and Luke present Jesus as being put to the test by the Adversary, the Power of the world’s wrongness, at the outset of his ministry (with temptations) and subsequently by his opponents, ( with trick questions) by needy people, (with demands to become a village healer) and even by his disciples ( when he had to rebuke Peter as a Satanic voice). These are integral to Jesus’ battle against the evils that afflicted people, including the evils they brought on themselves and others.

Jesus rebukes his sleeping disciples

In one way or another, almost all the encounters of Jesus’ ministry are presented as tests. Can he heal this person? Should he heal her? Will he condemn this one or forgive that one? Can he expose covert opposition and how can he withstand it when it becomes overt? How can he trust disciples who have so little trust in him? When the time comes, how will he face torture and death?

The gospels record a Jesus who is always adequate, always fully present, always ready with a sharp reply, an appropriate story, a shrewd question, an utterly compassionate response to need and an iron opposition to bullies. And none of this is credited to some supernatural inspiration. Jesus, the man, is grounded, unafraid, balanced, humourous, with a terrible desire to do what good he can, even to his opponents. For him this is the meaning of God: to be present in the world. This is the meaning of eternity: to be ready in time.

There were occasions when Jesus was not ready. The Gospels hint as much in the story of his struggle in the garden of Gethsemane, where in the course of rediscovering his own readiness, he warns his disciples that they have to find theirs. “Watch and pray” is an injunction which comes from someone who knew the importance and the difficulty of being ready. Doubtless he also failed sometimes, as for example in the way he dealt with a Canaanite woman whom he initially dismissed as a Gentile dog. He was able to learn from her witty willingness to be a dog, how wrong he was, and to make her readiness his own.

The book of Hebrews depicts Jesus as a high priest for all humanity who has offered his life to God as a sacrifice for human sin. The author asserts that it was essential that such a person understood human weakness. “The high priest we have is not incapable of sympathy for our weakness, for he has been put to the test in the same way as ourselves, apart from sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). Here the benefit of the testing is said to be that Jesus can understand his fellow human beings. Another benefit is that his fellow human beings can trust him.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman

Jesus’ readiness is an essential part of his offering to God. He does not hide his life or protect it but readily pours it out to meet the test. I am given the opportunity to learn from him how to stop ducking and diving and to face the tests of my life honestly. I can do this because I sense that his offering of life is for me and not against me, to enable me, rather than to condemn. And if I still fail, as of course I shall, then God says to my self-condemnation, “Don’t be so egotistical. I no longer see you as a separate life but only in company with my son Jesus.” I hope I can be ready for that test.

As part of my attempt to learn enough Spanish to get by on holiday, I often read the excellent Spanish newspaper El País online. On Saturdays it sends me its special supplement “Materia” on subjects of scientific interest. Today, for example it reports on world – wide investigation into using viruses as agents of destruction against cancer cells. It notes that this works on the same principle as vaccination, invented by Edward Jenner, whereby a micro-organism that causes disease can be re-designed for therapeutic purposes.image

A Spanish network of scientists are working on the Adenovirus family of viruses, which can be programmed to attack tumour cells. There is already anecdotal evidence that this approach may be successful.

When I consider all the kinds of scientific study which over centuries have created the possibility of this research – anatomical, genetical, chemical, biological, nano-technological to name but a few- I am moved to an awed respect for the patience and power of the scientific method. The capacity to frame ever- new hypotheses about the world and to test them rigorously has immeasurably enriched human knowledge and enhanced human lives.

This respect has driven me over years to be impatient with all sorts of religion that are careless with facts. From the sloppy emotionalism of evangelical ecstasy, through the ritual perfection of upper class Anglicanism to the bullying certainties of Free Kirk morality, there are many examples of a distaste for letting facts getting the way of faith, and of a pulpit rhetoric that remains six feet above contradiction.

Others, looking at the disjunction between religion and science have argued that there is no contradiction between them, because science establishes facts while religion announces their meaning. That seems dubious to me. The scientific theory of evolution, which has been for more than a century the most fruitful hypothesis about the development of life on earth, is not simply a collection about facts, but a narrative about the meaning of those facts. Christian opposition to the Theory began by denying the facts of the fossil record, (the missing link) then  attacking the narrative (how could humans be descended from apes?), then by dismissing the entire Theory as an atheist or communist plot. The truth is that Christian theologians saw correctly that both the Theory and the facts that supported it denied aspects of the biblical account of creation, and questioned many of the church’s doctrines. There is no way any philosophy or religion can dispute the meaning of the facts that underpin the Theory, without accepting and understanding them and the meanings that scientists have given them. A theology of creation might be more than the theories of science but it cannot be less. Any attempt to by-pass the facts is a denial of the creator. The facts are holy; God is in the facts.

The reluctance of churches and theologians to reckon with scientific method and its results has left a huge backlog of work to be done by those who refuse to accept a dichotomy between faith and knowledge. There is as yet no foundational theological work on creation that deals comprehensively with the theory of evolution, or with the discoveries of particle physics, or with the models of cosmologists or investigators of the human brain. Instead there are a plethora of re-runs of ancient controversies or eager engagement with fashionable issues.image

i have just re-read a book* about the theory of information by James Gleik which I do not fully understand but which introduced me to the many sciences of information and their related technologies, helping me to understand just a little about the IPad on which I am typing this blog. Computers have already transformed the world in which I live but most churches have used them as I do, to communicate their beliefs, rather to investigate these beliefs in the light of the computer revolution.

I was moved recently to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in a new translation by Clive James. It is the story of the journey of a pilgrim through hell and purgatory to heaven and to the final vision of the “love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It is  of course a great exposition of ChristIan faith, but is also a work of science fiction using the best science available to the author, so that faith, poetry and science form a single story of overwhelming beauty.


Yes, the explosion of knowledge in our time means that Dante’s grasp of all relevant science would be impossible for any one person today, but his book is a better model for theology than anything I know except the Bible. If we believe in the victory of God’s love in the world, we should be  eager to welcome all new knowledge of the world into our understanding and practice of faith, for if we reject it we may be rejecting  a revelation of God’s love.

The facts are holy; God is in the facts.

  • The Information, by James Gleik. Fourth Estate



I grew up believing in class. That is, our class, the class my parents belonged to. I believed because they believed. Both were publicly -minded  Christian people, my mother especially devoted throughout her life to the welfare of the neediest, yet they believed that the professional, educated middle class of Scotland upheld important social values and exemplified these in their habits of life. Other classes, the aristocracy and old-monied, the vulgar nouveau-riche, the decent working class, the rural labourers, and the shiftless unemployed, they might all, except the last, have their virtues, but it was the professional middle class that kept society decent.

They were committed kindly people who nevertheless saw class difference as positive and expressed casual prejudice about members of the other classes. My mother, who had a keen sense of fairness had also a particular distaste for Trade Unions, which she saw as rudely demanding what otherwise might have been kindly given. (Or not!) All of which is simply to say, that I grew up with prejudices which were not merely assumed but inculcated.

Peasant birth

As a young man, I was exposed to two crucial experiences of working class culture. The first was football which I played for the Boy’s Brigade against teams from around Glasgow, many of them from working class areas, which, although their players were physically smaller than ours, were very much more skilful. Over the years, the respect engendered by getting regularly gubbed by boys from Maryhill and Mount Florida, led to friendships that questioned my prejudices.

The second was my serious involvement in my theological College’s Mission in the Calton area of Glasgow, which contained much slum housing, as well as Glasgow landmarks like the Barras market and the Barrowland Ballroom. I was involved for three years in running Youth Club activities for children and teenagers from the area, most of whom were from families who had little income and lived in rotten housing, yet coped daily with problems that would have defeated me. I came to love their stoic gallantry, their sour humour, their pride and their endlessly inventive language.

These experiences, together with exposure to the ethos of the Iona Community, a radical Christian community committed to social justice, helped form the socialist convictions which are still with me. Extensive reading of Marx, McLean, Gramsci, EP Thomson. Eric Hobsbawm, Brecht, Nyerere and others extended my grasp of class history and the role of capital. For a short time in my thirties I was a member of the British Communist Party, which was a joke when it wasn’t a disgrace.

I have as a minister, worked in two working class parishes, the first in Bellsmyre, Dumbarton, the second in Douglas and Angus, Dundee, in both of which I found myself learning more from my parishioners than I could teach, as they knew so much better than I did, the virtues needed for individual and family living in these communities. Their experience of skilled and unskilled labour, of poor wages and uncertain employment, of predatory criminals selling drugs, as also of hard-won success, children going to college or Uni, sunny evenings drinking beer in the back step, of how love and loyalty could be life, and isolation could be death – was not my experience and made me at best an encourager rather than a leader.

I was reminded of this aspect of my life when I was reading Luke’s gospel this week. It was particularly Jesus’ argument about healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath that caught my eye, ” You all untie your ox on the Sabbath or take your donkey from the manger to give it water, don’t you?” My only answer to that would be, “No, I’ve never done that in my life,” because it comes from the experience of Galilean peasants, whose lives and customs are central to the teaching of Jesus. They were a class of people distant from me, but who shared with Scottish workers the experience of hard physical labour and with rural workers in particular, the care of crops and animals.The quoted incident is preceded in chapter 13 of Luke, by the parable of the fruitless fig tree which is spared being cut down to give it one more chance. Again this is not my class experience, nor indeed would have been the experience of the probably urban believers for whom Luke was writing, in the years when  the great expansion of Christain faith was taking place in the cities of the Roman Empire.

Peasant king

The Gospels are filled with the language, economy, labour, and consciousness of Jesus’ class, the peasants of Galilee. The tradition of Jesus sticks stubbornly to this class basis, even when its audience had become largely urban. This argues for the conservative bias of those who handed on the memory of Jesus. The scholarly consensus these days is that the tradition of Jesus was almost infinitely flexible and could be changed as  communities or authors wished. Here, as we expose the peasant bedrock of the tradition, we see its resistance to change, even when that might have seemed an evangelical advantage.

My personal history has taught me that the culture of any class is a rich treasury of human experience, with particular answers to the common human questions of how to survive and to flourish. At present through my part-time ministry in three rural parishes, I am again learning a culture previously unknown to me, that of the family farmers of Angus, which may be closer to that of Jesus than my own. Although the methods are very different from those of first century Galilee, seed time, harvest, the birth and death of animals, shepherding, physical labour in rough weather, dependence on the seasons, the importance of family inheritance and the ownership of land, all of these and more are points of contact with the biblical tradition and the experience of Jesus.

Of course, the message of Jesus is intended for all peoples and all classes of people;my argument is that we cannot share it by reducing it to general ideas, but rather by maintaining its roots in the economy of peasant Palestine, from where it can speak to people of very different economies. It does not speak immediately to our ideologies, but to our shared need to survive and our desire to flourish. It is not therefore a word of God which descends ready made from the heavens but like a mustard seed grows for many generations in the soil of community life. It is a commonplace that Jesus’ wisdom is rooted in the wisdom of Israel; it is more specifically rooted in the wisdom of Galilean peasants whose communal experience speaks through him.

A peasant gospel

PThe message of Jesus addresses how we manage our indiviual and communal dwelling space (ECONOMY); how we share our local experiences in the common house of the inhabited world ( ECUMENICITY);  how we cooperate with all creatures in the universal house of life (ECOLOGY); All the words in capitals are derived from the Greek word oikos, a house, meaning respectively Household Management, Readiness to look beyond our own houses to the houses of others, and Concern for the world as a house for all creatures. Jesus and his community announced justice in economy, peace through ecumenicity, love in ecological partnership; and they did so by practicing these virtues as the fulfilment, not denial, of their own experience as peasant farmer/ fisherfolk in first century Palestine.

As my old Clydeside communist pal used to say of almost everything, “It’ s a pure class phenomenon when you take its clothes off.”







TheTenant: Eh, by the way, it’s me again, can I talk to you?

Me: Ach! How did you get back in, I had you evicted the other day. Everything was nice and quiet….

TheTenant: It’s like the man said, I just came round to have a look at the old house, and there it was, neat and tidy and warm and empty. So how could I resist?

Me: I’m not putting up with this. I’ll count to ten and if you’re still around I’ll use the name of the Trinity….

TheTenant: No really, I just want to talk to you about William Wallace, I mean, harmless really…image

Me: I’m no expert on Scottish history….

TheTenant: You don’t need to be, big man, to know what I mean when I say he was a terrorist….

Me: He was a man of his times…

TheTenant: But he did things that other men of his times didn’t dare to do- burnt down towns without mercy, murdered officials, made a scabbard for his sword out of the skin of his defeated enemy after Stirling Bridge….

Me: As I said, a man of his times…

TheTenant: But it worked because it was savage. People thought that if independence was worth being damned for, it must be worth fighting for. It was the extremity of it captured peoples’ imagination, just like Daesh.

Me: Sorry, I see where this is going, I shouldn’t have allowed you to speak……hang on a minute, would you repeat your last sentence?

TheTenant: I think I said it was the extremity of it that captured the imagination…

Me:  That’s it! ” the extremity captured the imagination”, yes, very good…

TheTenant: What are you going in about. Sometimes I despair of humanity. It’s hardly worth tempting idiots…

Me: It’s the element in Jesus people don’t talk about,- his terrorism.

TheTenant: What on earth do you mean?

imageMe. Think what it was like to be told to leave your work and family to follow a man with nothing but a message;,what it was  like to be told to hate your mother and father and even your own life; what it was like to be told to shoulder your execution stake; what it was like to be on the road with someone who told you his destination was death.

TheTenant: He was always a miserable git…

Me: No! Not miserable at all. Extreme! He was a terrorist, someone who threw his life at the opposition without restraint, who made them afraid of his savage criticism, while convincing his followers to have no fear of death. It was his extremity that captured their imagination. If he could shoulder his execution stake, so could they!

TheTenant: All that is just rhetoric. He wasn’t a real terrorist like William Wallace. No killing, pillaging, burning…

Me: But truly, my friend, shouldn’t we say that Wallace wasn’t a real terrorist like Jesus, who didn’t need to kill since he could terrorise his opponents by his love for them. They must have felt real terror at a man who was so little afraid that he could desire their good as well as his own….

TheTenant: This is madness. You’re living in a fairy tale world while people like Daesh get on with the job….

Me: No, he knew that you couldn’t dispossess the strong man unless you tied him up first…That’s what he taught them: to have no fear of violence and bodily death, but to beware of the real enemy who could kill their souls by inspiring a love of wealth and power….

TheTenant: Crazy dreams…

Me: Crazy dreams that allowed his community of slaves and powerless people to overcome a world empire…..

TheTenant: And then? Then they fell in love with wealth and power and turned to terrorising heretics and heathens. You may say it took a long time for them to defeat Rome but it took me hardly anytime at all to corrupt the church once Jesus became respectable…image

Me: Once people forgot he was a terrorist. And did I hear you say “it took me” ? You must know that when you remind me who you are, you put yourself in my power, well not mine but rather the power of…

TheTenant: OK! I won’t argue. I’ll go……till the next time…

The Tenant: Good morning, hello, I thought I’d give you a call….

Me: Who’s that speaking?

The Tenant: This is one of your tenants. I might even say it’s your favourite tenant.

Me: There some mistake here, I don’t rent property and I’m not a landlord….

The Tenant: You are Rev Michael Mair if I’m not mistaken..

Me: Yes, that’s me, but I don’t have any tenants.

The Tenant: No? Not even in that property you take so little care of…image.jpeg

Me: Come on, stop messing around. Are you trying to sell me something?  Where are you calling from?

The Tenant: Somewhere very near, closer than you can imagine. You could call it an interior. Eh-heh, you could call it your interior in fact. If you doubt me, just switch off your phone. Good man, that’s it, and you can still hear me, yes, clear as a bell?

Me: Yes…….I can……Look, what sort of trick is this?

The Tenant: No trick, at all, I assure you. Just me, calling from your inmost self, your mind, your psyche, your soul as it used to be called…..

Me: I did wonder. I guess my mind’s playing tricks on me. You’ll go away if I don’t panic. You said you weren’t alone. who else is there?

The Tenant: Oh we don’t need to talk about him for the moment. No, I wanted to talk to you about your blogs.

Me: I’m always open to criticism.

TheTenant: So you say, but somehow you don’t ever get any. Maybe because hardly anyone reads them.

Me: That’s just abuse…

TheTenant: You’ve paraded yourself as a radical Christian who follows the true way of Jesus. You make pointed criticism of violence, greed and religious hypocrisy, just as he did.

Me: Well, so I do. Is there something wrong with that?

The Tenant: Well let me ask you. Is the world a whisker better, more peaceful, more generous, more honest, for all your criticism?

imageMe: Well, of course, I don’t really know. How could I know?

TheTenant: You know as well as I do that there’s not the slightest bit of evidence that all your pious blethers have improved the lot of the poor or the oppressed in even the teensiest of ways.

Me: I suppose you may be right….

TheTenant: Suppose? Of course I’m right. Yet you keep on blogging because it makes you feel better. You know that oppressive thugs will still kill and turture innocent people. You know that the richest people on the planet will grab its resources while despoiling its ecosystems. But blogging makes you feel better so everything’s fine and dandy.

Me: But you, my inner tenant, you know the answer, is that right?

TheTenant: Yes.

Me: So? You can’t expect me to believe you without being told your recipe for world-improvement…

TheTenant. You’ve been blogging now for six, seven years, is it? That’s about the same length of time it has taken Islamic State / Daesh to establish itself.

Me: So?

TheTenant: So, in the same time you spent farting around with bible blogs, these people have established networks of influence, purchased weapons, attracted worldwide support, carried out ambushes, raids, suicide attacks, taken hostages,  altered the politics of the world, demonstrated in other words, that ordinary people can change things….

Me: But by terror, by atrocities and ruthless commitment to their own cause…

TheTenant: Exactly. By terror. Because they know that only terror can shift the levers of power. Only terror can make the rich and powerful sit up and take notice. Only terror can have any hope of establishing the Rule of God in the world.

Me: Are you really making a case for terror? image

TheTenant. Bet your sweet ass I am. While you have been bleating in blogs, these guys have transformed the world. Stupid people ask in bewilderment why nice Muslim boys and girls from the civilised world are joining them. The answer’s obvious: because they’ve gone beyond talking about injustice and done things that make world leaders shake in their shoes, for if people are willing to die for a cause – not just willing to kill, but willing to die – how can they be contained by the usual threats; and if they are living their dangerous truth, how can they be deceived by the usual lies?

Me: But they’re monsters, depraved killers who torture and kill indiscriminately.

TheTenant:No, not indiscriminately. They don’t kill their own brand of Muslim. But yes, they are savage, deliberately maiming and killing in monstrous ways, to create fear. Terror, it gets things done. The rich and powerful seem to have their house comfortably furnished, under lock and key. Only terror opens the door. Even Jesus knew that, he said nobody could ransack a strongman’s house unless he first tied up the strong man. That’s what terror does.

Me: Ah, right. I think I know who you are, at last. I suppose I’ve always hoped you’d been evicted….

TheTenant: No, you’ve threatened, but you’ve never finally done it…you like me too much…

Me: You wish! But I recall you mentioned the other tenant. I think I know who that is, and maybe I’ll ask his help in dealing with you. As you reminded me, you need hog-tied before we can springclean the house…..

imageTheTenant: I’m a peaceful soul who never outstays his welcome. You don’t need to bother the… the …..other…But maybe you’ll keep in mind what I’ve said?

( To be continued)






In all truth I should rule myself out of commenting on primarily Roman Catholic affairs. I am after all an unrepentant Prod, loving and hating the Great Whore of Babylon in almost equal measure. I love its universal membership but hate the fact that it remains Roman, with all the centralisation of power which that entails. I love so many of its priests while hating the fact that none of them are women. I love the matter-of-factness of its worship, with its emphasis, not on emotion, nor intellectual understanding, nor perfect liturgy, but on the routine offering of a miracle in the mass, while hating the the rule that only priests can perform it. I love its Fathers, Doctors and Theologians while hating its inquisitors, ancient and modern….Still, would there be any point in being a Prod if the Roman Catholic Church did not exist?image

In my lifetime it has however made the most significant reforms of any Christian church, in the revolutionary changes pioneered by Pope John 23rd and the Vatican Council. It seems Pope Francis wants to continue the reforming spirit of Pope John, but without the massive organisational effort of a Council. Rather he has consulted both clergy and laity on matters connected with family life and has now issued his guidance.

It makes no doctrinal changes and requires no obedience to changes in practice. Instead, he leaves the people of the church at the mercy of the very bishops who have opposed his thinking. This is paraded as localism and respect for the catholicity of the church, but it is transparently a retreat from serious engagement with the issues of divorce, abortion and homosexuality. On these matters it would appear that Pope Francis has nothing to say but a reaffirmation of traditional teaching coupled with a request that clergy should apply it in a merciful fashion. This leaves, for example, homophobic African bishops free to denounce gays as abominable and to support their nations’ persecution of them by punitive laws. It leaves the male hierarchy of Scotland, already terminally tarnished by their record on sexual abuse, to rule on matters of safeguarding children.image

There are different abuses and excesses in the Catholic Church’s care of family life in the different cultures it serves, many issuing from the dominant powers within these cultures. What is required is a strong and authoritative declaration of doctrine and consequent practice, which expects obedience rather than debate. In others words, just when a Pope might have seemed a good thing, he has vanished, selling his birthright of authority for a mess of pieties about mercy.

I remain very doubtful whether Papal authority can ever be good, leaning as I do towards more democratic ways of taking decisions, such as are used in the reformed churches. But given the prolonged and agonising debate in my own church about homosexual  ministers, which has issued in the most obviously prejudicial rules for electing ministers in civil partnerships that the any homophobe could desire, I have longed at times for the clarity of a single authoritative voice that could say, “Do this now. Or else.”

imageAs Jesus did. It’s easy to forget that Jesus’  mercy was often communicated in commands, judgements or actions that brooked no contradiction. There has been something heroic in the Catholic resistance to any dilution of the teaching of Jesus on marriage, although I think their interpretation of it is wrong. If only the Pope could have mustered an equivalent heroism in standing for justice to divorced people, to pregnant women as well as to foetuses, to men and women whose sexual orientation, is not hetero, and to children everywhere. I do not mean that he should accept the views of western liberals in these matters, but rather that he could contribute something fresh, severe and liberating that would express the character of Jesus.

Oh well, if the Pope won’t do it, us Prods’ll just have to see what we can manage.

To all my fellow believers of all churches, and to the Holy Father, pax vobiscum.


















A Muslim man arrested for the killing of Asad Shah, a Glasgow shopkeeper and leading member of the Ahmadiyya Mosque in that city has issued a statement that he had not killed the man because of his reported respect for Jesus but for his disrespect to the Prophet Mohammed, peace be with him. He understood (wrongly)that Shah claimed to be a prophet of Allah, and therefore executed him for not accepting Mohammed as the last prophet of God.

Asad Shah

In fact Asad Shah did not think he was a prophet but, along with all Ahmaddiyya Muslims, believed that in fulfilment of a Qur’anic prophecy, one Mizra Gulam Ahmad, born in 1835, was the final messenger of God. There has been some evidence in Glasgow of tension between the Ahmadiyyas and the “orthodox” Mosque, which may have influenced the killer.

Qur’anic scholars are divided on the witness of their holy book about the treatment of heretics and apostates. My own inexpert view is that there are sufficient passages which condemn such persons to death to justify the wariness of non-Muslims towards this often beautiful set of teachings. Certainly Muslim Religious Law would insist that any offender would have to be tried and convicted before he could be sentenced, or at least named in a proper fatwa as deserving of death.

So, yes, the killer who issued this statement was wrong about his victim’s beliefs and about his right to take the Law into his own hands, but he may well have been right about the verdict of the noble Qur’an on heretics and apostates. That is my uncomfortable conviction: Islam teaches that disrespect of the Prophet is punishable by death. No doubt there must be due investigation,  due process of trial and conviction, but the brute fact is that you’d be daft to make a joke about Mohammed in a Mecca bar …… except there wouldn’t be a bar…

No Christian should find this strange. After all, with absolutely no encouragement from Jesus, Christians persecuted and in some cases killed those they defined as heretics, and fought savage wars of religion against their fellow believers. This is proof that religion itself, unless very specifically committed to nonviolence, needs no authorisation from its founder to murder those it considers as enemies. When religion permits no access to reason, the only way of settling disputes is by force.image

That is why I urge all people of faith to respect human reason: facts, rational argument, and a grasp of the uncertainty of all human judgement, are as essential in religious debate as they are in any other sphere of knowledge. Just as I am utterly opposed to a Christian fundamentalism which claims to be loyal to the literal sense of the Bible but in fact wants to impose its interpretation of the Bible on everyone, so also I am opposed to all Qur’anic scholarship that refuses a historical examination of the origins of the Qur’an and the myths that surround it. Only by exposing their holy traditions to the light of reason can Islam and Christianity rid themselves of bigotry and prejudice.

But there is a difference between the two faiths about disrespect of their founders. It would appear that anyone disrespecting Mohammed, peace be upon him, must be punished to defend the honour of the prophet; whereas Messiah Jesus died forgiving those who not only dishonoured but also tortured and killed him, thus living out his own instructions about loving your enemy. Disrespect was not a problem to Jesus; he thrived on it. That’s why, with all my respect for Islam,  I’m happy to be a disciple of One much stronger than Mohammed, who didn’t need to waste his enemies.

Bible-holy or free from error?

Any serious response to the Glasgow tragedy requires a fundamental examination of violence in the light of the teachings of Jesus and Mohammed.











The latest 10 Commandments by Arthur Hugh Clough

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp’d, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

This savage little poem by the Victorian poet Arthur Clough came to mind when I was taking in the revelations about the behaviour of rich and powerful people in their use of offshore tax havens. It is very unsurprising that a bunch of Russian thugs connected to the chief thug who rules their country, should have been hiding their dubiously obtained fortunes in the tiny remaining parts of the British Empire, but to many people, perhaps, more surprising that a late member of the British PM’s family did so. Of course, as all reports of these facts have to say, there’s no suggestion of anything criminal.image

“Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat

when it’s so lucrative to cheat.”

My own lifetime experience is that rich people will go to any lengths to protect their advantage over others, and to pass on that advantage to their offspring. While they are doing so however, they prefer to think of themselves as decent law-abiding and even Christian people. We live in a capitalist society as a consequence of which our laws protect wealth and its possessors from any serious exercise of justice; it’s often possible therefore, for the wealthy to be law-abiding. But Christian?

The often-hidden secret of Christianity is that Jesus was extreme about wealth. He did not teach that wealthy people should be reasonably philanthropic while maintaining their wealth, but rather that they should speedily get rid of their wealth before it damned them. It’s quite clear that he regarded the possession of wealth as one of the main dangers to a person’s salvation. This seems to have been his own distinctive understanding, which surprised and disturbed his disciples. When he sent a rich young man away with the message that he should sell up his properties, give the money to the poor and join his group of followers, he reportedly spoke about how difficult it was for rich people to squeeze into God’s kingdom. This astonished his disciples, who believed, as did most people in their society, that wealth was evidence of the blessing of God on a good life. Jesus’ words about camels and needle’s eyes left them in no doubt where he stood. He explained that you could not simultaneously serve God and Money. If this sounds a prejudiced view, we should recollect that Jesus showed none of the cold-heartedness of political or moral zealots; but kept company with rich people who had made their money dubiously, the collaborating tax-collectors and other riff-raff, while making it clear, as in the case of  Zacchaeus, what they needed to do. In the case of the rich young man who wanted salavation, the account mentions that Jesus felt affection for him. image

All this is so very clear in the Gospels, and in the practice of the early church, that it can only be ignored by means of a serious and deliberate distortion of the faith of Jesus. Yes, people may rightly argue that a living faith has to have intellectual space to grow and change and make itself relevant to new circumstances, but Jesus’ teaching about wealth is so  clear and central that I can’t imagine why anyone who disagreed with it, would want to be Christian in the first place. And the teaching is certainly not out of date or irrelevant, as the current revelations show. Rich people believe that their wealth owes nothing to the society in which they made it, to its material infrastructure, legal framework, political freedoms, nor to their fellow citizens. No, it is their money, their property, earned by their own hard work or that of their ancestors. They owe nothing to anybody, and are certainly not responsible for the condition of the poor in their own nation or elsewhere:

“Thou must not kill, but needs not strive

Officiously to keep alive.”

The contemporary assault on the benefits of state provision and the value of taxation is a the kind of barefaced self -interested tactic that Jesus would have expected: the rich serving mammon to the exclusion of social responsibilty, the very hard-heartedness he satirised in his story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, which imagines the rich man frying in hell while reminding God of His social responsibilities. Anyone who thinks these views are outrageous, should remind himself of the outrageous change which has taken place in my society over my lifetime. I grew up in post- war Britain, where many key industries were publicly owned, and top salaries taxed at over 90%. Public service of all kinds was considered honourable. Of course such a society had faults but I remain convinced that even its faults were more humane than the trumpeted virtues of the neo-liberal paradise in which I now live.

imageIt is not the job of the church to rule society, but rather to make its tradition available to citizens who are deciding their society’s future. As the referendum on Europe and the elections for the UK devolved assemblies approach, I consider that since Jesus’ teaching about wealth is more accurate than anything else we are likely to be offered, it should be made public by his churches.

In the fourth voyage of Gulliver, Jonathan Swift introduces him to a race of intelligent horses, who are utterly opposed to the routine follies of humankind, including its frequent use of lies, which the horses define as,”saying the thing that is not.” The horses are puzzled that anyone should want to do this, as it flies in the face of the facts. For Swift of course this judgement cuts two ways, exposing both the degeneracy of human beings and the limiting rationalism of the horses.

Gulliver and Houyhnhnm (horse)

But let’s stick to human beings.

This morning I received, as a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party, a “letter from Nicola” giving me the Party’s platform for the forthcoming Scottish election. I guess I can excuse the attribution of this letter to Ms. Sturgeon; after all my Bible includes things attributed to Paul, which were certainly never composed by the sage of Tarsus. In fact, if you reply to Nicola the pretence is dropped and an aide answers you in her own name. No, the pseudonymous letter is doubtless a legitimate device in maintaining the Party’s reputation for being modern and direct.

It was the content that got me: a selective list of appealing goodies delivered by the SNP Government in the name of fairness, such as free medical prescriptions for all, and free bus travel for the over 65’s. Now I can see how these might be viewed as goodies, but their contribution to fairness is far from obvious. I am lucky enough to be able to pay, as the English do, a fee for my prescriptions and for my bus travel. It is fair that I get them free? The SNP wants me to think so, and to resist any thought that people like me ought to be contributing more to the public purse. These items in the list are what some have called “persuasive definitions” or what Swift called, “saying the thing that is not” or as I might say, lies. There is also a more deliberate lie in the letter, a sideswipe at the Labour Party, which is accused of wanting to increase the tax burden for ordinary people. No doubt the Labour Party made a pig’s ear of its very modest proposals for income tax increases, but its clear aim was to tax the middle classes a bit more to protect public services used by everyone. This particular lie disguises the SNP’s reluctance to increase taxes, because that might alienate the wealthier section of its supporters.  Moreover it insidiously confirms the Tory view that all taxes, and the public services they fund, are an unfair burden on the rich.

As political lying goes, these are modest enough examples. Indeed some readers may be wondering why on earth I’m complaining, as surely no political party could survive without the kind of persuasive definitions ascribed to Nicola. Well, yes, but…

trouble with hot air…

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, believed that lies, especially but not exclusively the kind of lies generated in propaganda, were pernicious and the source of great evils in society. You only need to think about the consequences of the very popular lie that people on benefits are scroungers to see the truth of this proposition.  She argued for the existence of a special court which would deal with complaints against the publishers of lies. (She had the same difficulty in inventing a satisfactory way of selecting this court as Plato had in establishing his “guardians” in the Republic.) She recognised however, that political parties could not survive without lies; and therefore proposed the abolition of political parties!

Weil, like Swift’s horses, thought that tolerance for lies, especially public lies, was not only degrading but also likely to lead to catastrophe, as it encouraged people to believe “the thing that is not”, to evade reality.

There is much that is admirable about the SNP and its politicians; so if it feels it has to indulge in routine political lying, it may be assisting Weil’s case for abolition of parties. Without doubt the big parties hold the key to political careers, as well as setting the terms of political debate in this country. The big issues faced by all western democracies are: how to feed, educate and care for their populations; how to control  injustice and relieve poverty; how to combat climate change; how to deal with the plight of refugees; how to combat the terrorism of groups and nations. And Nicola wants me to think about my bus pass!

Commentators all round the world commended the Independence Referendum in Scotland for creating a vibrant political culture that involved all ages. Already it’s evident that the enthusiasm of youth is being harnessed, especially by the SNP, to communicate election messages. Or as Jonathan Swift might say, “to promote the thing that is not” or as I might say, to tell lies. This may lead to speedy disillusionment.

Yahoos (humans) serve horses

Simome Weil, a profound thinker, was seriously loopy about some issues and I until now thought her view on the abolition of parties was one of them. Now, I’m not so sure. Of course some political parties have done some public good, but the time may have come to examine the effects of their relentless propaganda on our ability to face facts.

The readers who wonder what this has got to do with Jesus or theology may be comforted by this verse from Isaiah chapter 59: v 14:

fair judgement is pushed aside, justice stands far off; for truth has fallen in the public square, and honesty cannot enter.”