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Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a call for cross-party cooperation on  Brexit because he feels the country needs “peace”, in the wake of terror attacks and the recent Grenfell tower block disaster. Certainly he’s  got a lot on his plate, as a report he commissioned has accused at least one previous Archbishop of complicity in the sexual abuse of young men by another bishop. Today that ex- Archbishop has resigned from his present post and apologised, but those unfortunate enough to have heard a certain sort of upper class men talking about rent boys will doubt if this is sufficient penance.

But I regard the present Archbishop’s intervention in politics this week as a mistake in any case. He tries hard to justify his call for peace, when what he really expresses is an establishment fear of serious politics. There are a number of real divisions of opinion and interest in the UK at present, which will require passionate engagement,  forceful public expression of views and political action over the next few years. Affecting almost all the other issues is the raw exposed fact that profit-seekers and their political allies cared so little about the lives of poorer people, that they allowed them to live in conditions that turned a minor domestic fire into a comprehensive death-trap within minutes. What this reveals about building standards is bad enough, but what it reveals about the savage carelessness of the managers of wealth is worse: men and women with friends and families of their own, they were ready to treat their poorer brothers and sisters as simply disposable.

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Another faulty tower block

The horror of “being disposable” has struck the survivors of the fire with an astonished rage, and has spread to others who live in similar housing and are likewise viewed viewed by the wealthy as surplus to requirements. We should be as precise as possible about the motives of the wealthy: it is not that they wish the death of the poor, but rather that their allegiance to Mammon has frozen the genial current of their souls, and left them without concern for the welfare of their neighbours. I  am reminded of one of Arthur Hugh Clough’s alternative ten commandments:

“Thou must not kill, but needs not strive

officiously to keep alive.”

This attitude, institutionalised in aspects of public life has aroused the kind of anger which ought to be expressed in vigorous politics. Yes, this will involve division, debate and disruption which will be for the good of society. This what politics is for: dealing with the clear differences of vital interest which might otherwise lead to violent rebellion or repression. Democracy can cope with passionate disagreement provided the antagonists remain convinced that their cause can be advanced by full- blooded persuasion and solidarity, rather than by force. The denigration of politics and politicians over the last few years has served only the interests of those who possess power and wealth, leaving masses of people to attribute their problems to foreigners, immigrants, scroungers and Muslims. A return to politics and its boisterous arts can only benefit our society. But the whiff of powerful politics signals danger to those who benefit from the status quo; it suggests that down below the savage beast is stirring. So they counsel peace, as the Archbishop has done.

In the Old Testament of the Christian bible the prophet Ezekiel is recorded as facing opposition from the religious supporters of the status quo, who suggested that his criticisms of the national leadership were alarmist. He turns on them with a telling phrase from his God:

Yes, they have seduced my people

declaring peace when there is no peace

and when someone puts up a wall with no mortar

they cover it with whitewash.

( or when they want to maintain a crumbling tower block wall, they cover it with flammable cladding)

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Corbyn at Glastonbury

Peace in the biblical sense is never merely the absence of strife, but rather the result of justice. This is a time in our society when we must reconstitute the dignity of political action and discourse, and repossess the freedom of speech which has been prostituted by our popular press, if we want to achieve the justice which will lead to peace.

 

 

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My wife and my daughter gave me as a father’s day gift, a book of photographs by Sebastian Salgado entitled “Genesis”. He is one of the greatest photographic artists in the world, with two projects already achieved, “Workers” which focused on manual labour, and “Migrations” which depicts one of the the most disturbing global trends of our time. He had planned a project on ecological degradation, but a creative experiment in which he successfully restored the flora of an ancestral piece of land, convinced him that he should record primal beauty rather than its destruction by humanity. The marvellous volume which I now possess, published by Taschen, is one result of his visits to those parts of the planet least altered by human beings.

He has perfected the art of looking with his camera, finding angles and exposures which show the viewer a world always in motion, always alive, always still becoming; the miracle of life united with the environment to which its DNA has adapted, is celebrated on every page. The co-genesis of the planet and its creatures is shown not only in relation to flora and fauna, but also to homo sapiens, here captured in customs of stable adjustment to nature which are everywhere vanishing.  Salgado has called this book his love -letter to the planet, and it is an apt title. He is not first of all using his camera to speak to you and me, but to the planet itself, and to humanity only as one of its wonders. It reminds me time and again of lines by Ezra Pound in his Pisan Cantos:

“Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

made beauty or made order or made grace…

learn of the green world how to take thy place

in scaled invention and true artistry”

This is a book which will refresh the jaded eye and spirit for years to come.IMG_0443

By its title however, he challenges comparison with the first book of the Christian Bible, a comparison which reveals clearly that he has displaced humanity from its biblical place in the centre of the story. This is for our human good so that we can begin to tell our story as part and only part of the story of the earth. The book of Genesis does this in its first chapter, which begins with the creation of light and ends with the rest of the Sabbath day. But within a few pages of Genesis a murder has taken place. Human beings have already usurped the order established by the Creator; in their desire to have godlike power they have stolen knowledge. From that point in the Bible, the human beings become the people we know, capable of great goodness but also of great wrong, of deceit, jealousy, hatred, violence and destruction. The Creator who has made humanity in the likeness of God, to care for his earth, is so overtaken by the deliberate and ingenious evil of humanity, that he decides all living things must go.  Why not just do away with humans? Because God knows that human beings belong with these creatures, just as much as any Darwinian. In the end the creatures survive the flood together, but within a paragraph or two, humans have gone back to their old habits of wrongdoing.

The world depicted in Delgado’s Genesis is innocent: there is savagery of landscape, weather, glaciation and predation, but there is no evil; even the human beings are innocent and integrated with their environment. The human groups Delgado selects are “primitive”, at risk from global commerce and contact. They have been “left behind” in their innocence, by their brothers and sisters who developed sophisticated agriculture, industry, and communications, with whom Delgado has been concerned in his previous work. He knows of course, that in many places, the lands have been deforested, the rivers dammed, the lakes poisoned, the women raped and killed. But he wants to reveal the extent to which the planet remains beautiful because it remains creative. He wants his viewers to fall in love with it all over again.

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Yet the sober narrative of the biblical Genesis is also necessary with its reminder of the pervasive arrogance and destructiveness of homo sapiens, who push God to abandon grand schemes of punishment, and to entrust his creative wisdom to one small family of desert nomads, which means he has to abandon his celestial existence and get down and dirty on this earth, with this people. This story is continued in the New Testament by the story of Jesus, who is described as the one through whom God made the worlds, the maker and restorer of beauty.

For me, the creative spirit speaks through Delgado’s creative response to our planet, counselling us not to be so arrogant about our wrongs as to forget the rightness of the world. We may have “fallen” but it has not.

* all images by Sebastiao Delgado

 

IMG_0436I’ve been reading. Yanis Varoufakis, eapecially his recent books, “And the weak suffer what they must?” and “Adults in the Room” with pleasure, and some amazement at his ability to make complex economic matters clear to this ageing brain. These are books which challenge to the prevailing ethos that we are here to consume and must struggle to get a decent share of scarce commodities. Of course everyone would like to consume lots, but because our banks went mad, we all have to be very restrained and put up with austerity, all of us that is, except the bankers and other rich people who contributed to the madness. Varoufakis thinks that the planet is very rich and that if its resources are used intelligently there’s more than enough for everybody. What’s more, the true richness of life does not consist in consumption, but in sociability, adventure, knowledge, healing and creativity. The sense of scarcity and the insistence on consumption, he says, benefit those who already hold wealth and power but still want to consume more. He does not think that the purveyors of austerity are wicked, but that their love of power and its rewards has blinded them to any fact that might disturb their illusion.

I recommend his writing to anyone who wants to understand our contemporary problems, and who would like to be liberated from an economics of scarcity.

Because I am a biblical scholar, his critique reminded me of a great and little understood chapter in the Gospel of Mark., namely chapter 6 from verse 14, half of which is about King Herod, and the other hallf about Jesus. Mark is providing his readers with two vignetttes of royalty. IMG_0437

In the first we are introduced to King Herod, who is reminded by reports about Jesus of John the Baptist, whom he had executed. The execution had been prompted by a royal banquet, at which his step-daughter Salome so pleased him and his his guests by her dancing that he offered her anything she might wish. After consultation with her mother Herodias whom John had denounced for marrying Herod, her dead husband’s brother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Although Herod was reluctant, he did not want to lose face so John lost his head, which was fetched to the  banquet table in a dish.

King Herod is depicted as a consumer of food, drink, women and the admiration of his rich friends. Indeed, as the head of John is brought to the table, he becomes symbolically a cannibal, a consumer of his people. There is no doubt that the bankers and the rulers of European economy have preserved the lifestyle of the Herods of our time, who daily consume the lives of those they impoverish.

Jesus, on the other hand, is shown as a different kind of leader. His banquet is in the wilderness and is given for a large crowd who have sought him out, perhaps because they believed him to be the Messiah, a God-given king. Although his disciples think there is a scarcity of food, it turns out that there is an abundance. The crowd is not treated as an assembly of consumers, but as people in partnership, able to sit with each other face to face, in small groups. In the abundance which flows from Jesus’ blessing, people are freed from competition and mere consumption. In the image of the baskets of leftovers the writer hints that there would have been enough for the twelve tribes, that is, for the whole of Israel. This is Mark’s picture of King Jesus.

In our own time the task of pointing to abundance, of denying the lie of scarcity which only serves the rich, is one that followers of Jesus could usefully adopt. If there is real scarcity it is caused by the misuse of the earth, the injustice that forces people to live in unfruitful places, and the  greedy over- consumption of goods and services by a small number of people. Reminding people of the abundance of natural resources, the fruits of cultivation, industry and the intelligence of humanity may also predispose them to share these goods intelligently for the benefit of all.

But that is only one part of following the example of Jesus. The other is the rediscovery of human wealth: that as soon as human beings can sit down as equals at the one table to share food, they become com-pan-ions ( bread-sharers) and not consumers, knowing how precious each one is.

An appreciation of abundance, of the fruitfulness of the earth, might also persuade us not to pillage the earth for its sources of energy, and poison it for additional yields, but to cherish it as our bountiful mother. Much of the harm we do rests on our assumptions about scarcity.

Blockupy movement meetingI am grateful to Varoufakis for his searching analysis of European economic problems, and even more, for his vision of plenty, which, he might be surprised to find, has deep roots in the biblical tradition.

The result of the British General Election is clear enough, even if its consequences for parliamentary government are not. Mrs May has led her party to the verge of defeat, while Mr Corbyn has shown himself to be civilised, tough and successful. Here in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has been shown that most Scots do not want independence,  allowing Ruth Davidson a niche as the representative of ordinary Scots, while Kezia Dugdale has benefitted from the policies of a UK leader she doesn’t rate. The personal and political future of some of the most powerful people in the land has been altered, without violence, by means of public discussion and the vote. This means of asserting the popular will has doubtless many defects, some of which may become obvious as the struggles of a hung parliament are played out, but it remains something to be noted and celebrated.

Probably a largely discredited Tory party will continue to rule with the assistance of the  Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, which will mean a continuation of unrestrained capitalism as our favoured economic model, with all its imposed restraints on the welfare of poorer people and public services. Indeed, even if Mr Corbyn were to succeed in cobbling together a ruling coalition, he would almost certainly have to forego some of the boldest polices he has proposed for social justice.

All of which means that those who suffer from unrestricted market forces, the poor, the sick, the people dependent on benefits, the people who need or work for public services, the workers whose skills are exploited by huge multinational companies, will continue to suffer; those nations and peoples damaged by our support of international capitalist trade will continue to be damaged; and those who long for a more just and peaceful society will continue to be disappointed. No sense of appreciation for social democracy should be allowed to obscure the harm that will  continue to be done.

In other words, not much is settled by this election result. Mr Corbyn in a speech yesterday used the words of Shelley, “ye are many, they are few” as encouragement to his supporters. The trouble is that as long as capitalism can satisfy the minimum demands of two thirds of the electorate, Shelley’s arithmetic will not add up to change. In a few weeks the hope of justice will be back in the hands of the saints who battle for it through community groups, charities, and trade unions as well as those who try to provide some small measure of it through their work in public service and social enteprise.

Politicians who want social justice and are not content with the result of this election, must not in their disappointment forget the victims of capitalism nor the saints who work for them. They should be involved in these basic struggles, helping them win their battles and trying to build a more inclusive movement for social justice. There are some signs that the Corbynistas promote this solidarity, while misdirecting it into sectarian political identities. The strength of grass-roots activists is that they are not saddled with existing political identities and can form genuinely popular institutions that will refresh our politics if they are encouraged to do so. The struggle continues.

And what about the Church? The truth is that for years now my church’s General Assembly has promoted social justice, but the response of its members has been partial: on issues of world poverty for example, they have maintained support for Christian Aid, which makes a huge contribution to the neediest people in the world; but in respect of domestic politics have probably not much altered their class bias. My guess is that church people round Scotland will have allied themselves more with their communities of residence than with each other in this election. But just perhaps, their common faith and belonging holds out the possibility of mutual political education, if any activists dare to enable it. The church is not and is not meant to be the kingdom of God; but it is meant, in word and action, to point to it.

 

“We all know that when journalism becomes indistinguishable from organized lying, it constitutes a crime. But we think it is a crime impossible to punish. What is there to stop the punishment of activities once they are recognized to be criminal ones? Where does this strange notion of non-punishable crimes come from? It constitutes one of the most monstrous deformations of the judicial spirit. Isn’t it high time it were proclaimed that every discernible crime is a punishable one, and that we are resolved, if given the opportunity, to punish all crimes? A few straightforward measures of public salubrity would protect the population from offences against the truth. The first would be to set up, with such protection in view, special courts enjoying the highest prestige, composed of judges specially selected and trained. They would be responsible for publicly condemning any avoidable error, and would be able to sentence to prison or hard labour for repeated commission of the offence, aggravated by proven dishonesty of intention.”

These words are an extract from The Need for Roots by Simone Weil, written after the last world war. She frequently dispenses a heady mixture of wisdom and wackiness, which is evident here. I think she’s right about journalistic lies being a crime and also right that they should be punished; but naive to think that her special courts would not speedily be corrupted by powerful interests. My conviction is that such courts could only function if they were composed of people internationally selected, trained and owing allegiance only to the U.N.

With that correction however, I would be happy to see public truth protected as she suggested. Especially in view of the contribution of our so-called free press to tomorrow’s general election. In most cases, the worst kinds of prejudice, distortion and evasion of the facts have been displayed by British Newspapers, almost all of which are mouthpieces for their owners’ interests. With the exception of the Guardian and the Daily Mirror, (the latter not exempt from its own fibs) national newspapers have fibbed daily to rubbish all criticism of western capitalism and to support the worst instincts of the British Conservative Party. Indeed UKIP with its racist nonsense would doubtless have received their support as it did in the Brexit Referendum, had it been at all electable.

All this is only to be expected and is taken for granted by most citizens. But why should we permit such criminal behaviour in our society? Why should those who favour any decent sort of politics or social improvement have to fight constantly against the mafias of malevolent tycoons? When any controls on their constant distortions are proposed, these journalists squeal that the freedom of the press, without which we should have no access to the truth, is under threat. Dr. Johnson once asked about the American colonists, “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for Liberty from the owners of slaves?” I might ask, “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for public truth from those who who are paid to peddle porkies?” Why do we put up with such crimes?

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Because we believe that freedom of opinion and speech is essential.

But we do not in all instances agree that we should accept factual distortion or falsehood. If someone has told lies about me in public and damaged my life in some measurable way, I can sue for libel. In the case of the kind of political lying defined above, it may seem that as long as newspapers are careful not to tell obvious lies about individuals, there is no victim and therefore, no crime. Clearly however, citizens are injured by being deprived of the facts they need to vote responsibly. We consider this to be self-evident in the case of states which lack a free press; and of course most British citizens could discover the relevant facts if they worked hard enough. But as it is, those who believe that the greatest freedom is the freedom of the rich to become richer and the powerful more powerful, are hugely advantaged by our national press to the detriment of all others: a crime is being committed.

How should such offences be punished?  Simone Weil was a Christian radical who didn’t want anyone to think she was infirm of purpose. She, therefore, wanted them packed off to jail. But I hate to think of the moral deterioration of our ordinary convicted criminals if they were forced to mix with Daily Mail journalists. Moreover, Weil believed in the redemptive power of imprisonment,  which I as a former Prison Chaplain regard as myth. So I would revert to the ancient Roman penalty of exile. The convicted person was forced to live amongst barbarians. In this case, I think those convicted of deliberate lying in the public press should be exiled permanently to the USA, presently the world capital of fake news, in the hope that they might see and suffer the kind of society produced by persistent lying.