Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One week on...

I'm in London today. I was actually supposed to be here this time last week, but put it off due to a friend's wedding that sadly turned into a funeral... As a result I missed being in London for another funeral... that of Margaret Thatcher. 
I largely avoided facebook and news/current affairs shows between her death and funeral mostly because I was surprised at how much her demise raised old emotions in me, and I really did not want to get sucked into the "ding-dong" response to the death of  a confused old lady. I've actually spent a fair part of the past fortnight trying to process the effect that she had on my political awareness and orientation, never mind the wider question of what she, her -ism and acolytes did for/to the country, indeed are still doing... It is complex. And part of that is that she herself was not solely responsible for anything... either in terms of me or the nation... but she was a lightning rod for it all... 
Others have offered analyses of her legacy that express where I am coming from in a more coherent and nuanced way than I possibly could, especially Russell Brand (I never thought I would ever say that) and Paul Vallely (here and here), so I have no intention of trying to offer some sort of comprehensive comment... But having been sucked in to watching her funeral I was struck by a number of elements within the service... 
First was the repeated references to her Methodist upbringing, which was echoed in the choice of "Love Divine" as one of the hymns. Like Mrs. Thatcher, Methodism is full of different strands, contradictions and counterbalances, but I suspect that as Margaret Hilda Roberts grew up she absorbed more of the "puritanical" personal holiness strand of Methodism, than the strand of social holiness/justice teaching in Methodism that produced the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as lauded by the Bishop of London... Indeed when he mentioned them I half expected the deceased to rise from the dead in protest! He made great play of the misunderstanding of her "no such thing as society" statement, and there is no doubt that it was misunderstood, but it has been misunderstood not only by her enemies, but also her allies. Her emphasis on individual responsibility quickly became advocacy for individualism, which mutated into naked self interest, and ultimately the sheer selfishness that characterised the new economy of the later 1980s and has shaped the financial industry that has created the current economic mess. Wesley, in his teaching on money memorably said that we should  "earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can". One friend suggested that Mrs Thatcher advocated the first too but not the last, however, Labour MP Frank Field in a recent interview said that he once asked Mrs Thatcher what was her greatest regret, to which she responded that it was that when she lessened taxes on the wealthy that the did not give more to good causes. So perhaps the problem was not that she hadn't learned that element of Methodist teaching, but that she saw it as so fundamental that she couldn't see that everyone else would too.
The second element was the spiritual machismo on display in the service, completely in keeping with the military escort of the funeral cortege, the artillery salute etc (I'm still uncertain as to what differentiated this "ceremonial funeral" from a state one). It was present in the other two hymns, "To be a pilgrim" ("Though he with giants fight") and "I vow to thee my country" (I always refuse to sing that idolatrous first verse - the last time it was sung at a funeral I attended was at the funeral of a loyalist paramilitary leader - 'nuff said), and the armour of God passage from Ephesians 6. These were not exactly typical for the funeral of a woman, but Margaret Thatcher was not a typical woman (I love Russell Brand's reference to her "coiffured masculinity". It chimed well with the myth of Margaret Thatcher as a modern day Boudicca, draped in a Union flag... Liberator of the Falklands, implacable enemy of Irish republicans (at least on the public stage) and Iron Lady standing staunchly with her bellicose bosom buddy Ronnie Reagan against the evil empire of the Soviet Union...
Many of her supporters have lauded her as Britain's greatest peacetime Prime Minister. There are many ways in which I might dispute that and nominate Clement Atlee for that title... But I think that at a fundamental level, Margaret Thatcher was NOT a peacetime prime minister at all... Most commentators agree that the Falklands War prevented her from being a one term Prime Minister booted out because of disastrous unemployment figures, with Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins suggesting that the Falklands revealed her to be "a highly capable and committed war leader". She, like her hero Winston Churchill, revelled in a fight... so much so that she seemed to go out of her way to find or make enemies... Be it the unions in general, or the miners in particular, of whom she famously said:
"We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty."
The established churches in England and Scotland periodically found themselves in her firing line when they dared to disagree with her on social policy or regarding reconciliation with Argentina after the Falklands war. Whilst her attitude to the European Union seemed to be founded not only on a suspicion of  Jaques Delors' socialism, but also on a wariness over domination by our erstwhile enemies, Germany and France...
She seemed to approach every situation as a battle, and did not seem to understand the concept of consensus politics... In one recent interview Sir Malcolm Rifkind said:
“I recall she was asked, ‘Do you believe in consensus?’ and to our surprise we heard her say, ‘Yes I do believe in consensus, there should be a consensus behind my convictions’.”
This, for me, always stood sharply in contrast with her avowed intention on entering Downing Street when she said:
"Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new administration and I have accepted. It is, of course, the greatest honour that can come to any citizen in a democracy. I know full well the responsibilities that await me as I enter the door of No. 10 and I'll strive unceasingly to try to fulfil the trust and confidence that the British people have placed in me and the things in which I believe. And I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’... and to all the British people—howsoever they voted—may I say this. Now that the Election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we're so proud to be a part."
Yet the country she left behind was more divided than when she came to power, between north and south, rich and poor, England and Scotland... And those divides have continued to widen with the subsequent years, including those under Blair and his version of Thatcherism-lite. But look again at the section of the Franciscan prayer that she quoted and look at the prayer in full to see what she omitted. Here is the version widely quoted in the AA movement:
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;that where there is hatred, I may bring love;that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;that where there is error, I may bring truth;that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;that where there is despair, I may bring hope;that where there are shadows, I may bring light;that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;to understand, than to be understood;to love, than to be loved.For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.Amen.
Within her quote and seemingly in her mindset is no reference to peace or to forgiveness... She famously said she would not forgive those who had ousted her from power, and there are those who suggest that her implacable enmity to the Labour party was due to her inability to forgive the labour councillors who ousted her father as Alderman in Grantham... I don't know the truth of that but it certainly fits... Yet without forgiveness there can be no real reconciliation or peace... personally or nationally... And I have to take that on board when it comes to my own attitude to Mrs. Thatcher.Yet throughout the funeral service were repeated references to peace... It's normal and appropriate to pray that the deceased will not only rest in peace but that those who remain will know God's peace. But that peace or shalom is not simply peace and quiet -  the peace of the graveyard... but peace with justice...
Which brings me to the final element of the service - that in many ways was the most disquieting for me - the use of the passage in John 14 where Jesus refers to leaving his peace, after promising that in his Father's house were many mansions... The next day I heard a discussion on radio between Richard Bacon and Matthew Paris, where Bacon clearly didn't understand what the reading was about... But it made me wonder whether the irony of a reading involving houses and mansions was lost on Margaret Thatcher when she drafted her own funeral service, given that the sale of council houses was one of the lasting legacies of her term in office, bearing fruit in the bedroom tax of today. The whole idea of "allowing people to own their own homes" seems, on the face of it, to be a noble endeavour, in tune with the idea that "an Englishman's home is his castle", but the fact that local councils and housing authorities could not then reinvest the meagre income from the sales in new builds, effectively pulled the drawbridge up on such castles for later generations, especially given the subsequent exponential and unsustainable rise is house prices. But then the sale of council housing and selling shares in newly privatised industries and utilities (a work of genius encouraging people to pay for companies they already owned as taxpayers), was a two pronged political move. It was not only an attempt to reduce any kind of public ownership of assets and central planning, a fundamental element of the Friedman/Hayek free market thinking that inspired Margaret Thatcher, but it was also an unashamed attempt to buy a new sector of Conservative voters. A piece I read recently referred to Margaret Thatcher's time as Education Secretary when she famously snatched away the right of older primary pupils to free milk. It caused such negative publicity that apparently she vowed she would never make any political decision that did not bring immediate personal political benefit. The sale of public housing and shares in other public assets brought that... it allowed her to divide and conquer the former working class, producing lots of little capitalists. But it was ultimately a glorified ponzi scheme... It was impossible for everyone to benefit... after the initial financial feeding frenzy the British economy, shorn of heavy industry, ultimately settled down on to the insubstantial foundation of the financial and service sectors endlessly recycling money, with less and less actually being produced, apart from the North Sea Oil that bankrolled this madness. This did bring short-term political gain to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, but long term... well, we're still living that experience.
She may be dead and buried but her -ism is alive and sick...


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

St. George the Palestinian

This is a post that should have gone up last year in the wake of a report (inevitably in the Daily Mail) advocating greater pride in the Cross of St. George and attributing antipathy towards it to the English Defence League. However, due to a technical glitch (I didn't press the publish button) it didn't appear. So, one year on, in the wake of further violence involving the English Defence League here are my thoughts, such as they are.

Happy St. George's Day to all my English friends (and a happy Will Shakespeare Day to all my English literature loving friends).
Poor old St. George has been an easy target for mockery over the years. Over the years he has been progressively relegated from the Vatican's Premier League of Saints, down to the hagiographic equivalent of the Isthmian League, and the most famous story about him is the patently fictional one about him killing a dragon (although many of the more famous stories about St. Patrick are patently fictional too)... Indeed, when I was younger it was suggested that there were suspicions that he was as fictional as the dragon he slew. But there has been a recent resurgence of interest in George, although whilst many of those who drape themselves in the flag named after him see him as the champion of all things English (whatever that means), it seems as if he might better be described as the epitome of multi-culturalism.
Perhaps that is why England shares him with Lithuania, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Georgia and Palestine. It is suggested that he was actually born of a Palestinian mother and a Roman army officer in Turkey, which may explain why Istanbul also sees him as its patron saint, although he was born in Cappodocia in the east of the country. Although there is confusion as to the names of his parents, most agree that they were both Christians and that George was brought up in the Christian faith. If he ever came to England, it would have been as part of the occupying Roman army into which he is thought to have followed his father, rising to become a fairly high-ranking officer, but we have no records to suggest that he did come to these islands (although the fact that Jesus undoubtedly didn't come here either doesn't stop the lusty singing of Blake's "Jerusalem" at every possible jingoistic event). Actually we don't have records of any of his military actions, be they against fictional dragons or other enemies of the empire, but the legends suggest that he ultimately died, not in service of the empire, but in one of the last great Roman persecutions of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. George seemingly refused to abandon his religion and bow to Diocletian (some suggest that this was despite Diocletian's personal patronage of George in memory of his late father, and direct attempts by the Emperor to persuade him to back down). As a result he was imprisoned, tortured, and finally beheaded at Nicomedia, on April 23, 303AD, but not before he had given his property to the poor and freed his slaves. His body was returned to Lydda in Palestine for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr, although it wasn't until 494AD that George was formally recognised as a saint.
In the 7th century he was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede, in England, but the earliest church in England dedicated to him is one at Fordington, Dorset, that is mentioned in the annals of Alfred the Great. The first time a holy day in his honour was celebrated in England was sanctioned by an episcopal synod in Oxford in 1222. But by that time the St. George's flag, a red cross on a white field, had been adopted by England, initially, in 1190 for their ships, and subsequently their crusading troops. If truth be told it was originally not out of veneration of St. George himself, but to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet, whose home city also had George as its patron. Apparently the English paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. But wearing the cross of St. George gave the English crusaders an interest in this soldier saint, although they weren't the only ones to adopt him as their own at this time. A military Order of St. George was established in Aragon, and a number of later Papal chivalric orders also took St. George as their patron. Indeed I myself, for reasons too complicated to go into here, am a bronze medal benemerenti of the Sacred Constantinian Military Order of St. George, a papal order from the ruritanian-sounding Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But anyway, returning English crusaders brought stories about this soldier saint home with them, and eventually he was acknowledged as England's patron saint by the 14th century.
But while St. George became popular with crusaders, and is currently claimed as the patron saint of vocal opponents of Islam, the ironic thing is that, he is recognised and indeed venerated by Muslims, as well as Christians throughout the Middle East, at times being partially identified with the mystical figure of Al-Khidr (who may also be equated with the Green Knight in Arthurian legend, but let's not confuse things further). Indeed Muslim legends insist that he killed his dragon near the sea in Beirut (another city that venerates him as patron) and Muslim women used to visit his shrine there to pray to him. There was also for some time a tradition of Christians and Muslim both going to an Eastern Orthodox convent and shrine of St. George at Beith Jala near Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories. Jews also attended the same the site believing that the prophet Elijah was buried there. The Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are said to believe that St. George can restore mad people to their senses; and to say a person has been sent to St. George's, is equivalent to saying he has been sent to a madhouse.
And as such St. George represents the complexity of the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. He was a Palestinian Christian, and to this day there are still around one hundred thousand Palestinian Christians in Gaza and the West Bank who live and work and suffer and die side by side there. But with the increasing polarisation between the supposed Christian west and Islamic east, many of these indigenous relationships are breaking down. There are fears among Syrian Christians that if the rebels succeed in ousting the Baathists there as they were ousted in Iraq then they will suffer the same fate of their Iraq Christian neighbours, being persecuted by Islamic extremists, who regard even indigenous Christians as possible fifth-columnists for the great Satan, America and the Christian west (in much the same way that Catholics were viewed in England in the wake of the reformation). Hence Christian communities that pre-date and survived the toxic aftermath of the Crusades are only now threatened with annihilation. 
Will this be helped by people swathed in the flag of St. George, talking about this being a Christian country, whilst spewing racism that should be alien to a follower of Jesus? I doubt it, and it certainly isn't in tune with the memory of St. George.
Actually part of the reason that the Emperor Diocletian acted so viciously against the Christians of his day was that he saw their gospel of love as one that dangerously transcended national and cultural boundaries challenging the authority and power of the state. George died rather than bow the knee to that vision of a state that tells people how and who they should worship. 
And, returning to that most famous story of St. George, if there is one dragon that needs slain in this day in age it is the two-headed dragon of spiritualised racism and nationalism dressed up in a St. George's flag... or indeed in any flag.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ecce Homo

We tried a number of times earlier in the run to get to see "The Man Jesus" with Simon Callow at the Lyric Theatre, but in fine Campton fashion, only managed to see it on the last night. Given the show is now over I won't offer any sort of comprehensive review, except to say that I enjoyed it, but was not bowled over by it. The sparse staging and lighting allowed the audience to focus on Callow's performance which offered differing perspectives on the life and death of Jesus from various men and women around him. The mission-hall-type wooden seats which Callow constantly shuffled throughout the performance were sufficient to suggest the temple clearance or the Last Supper. Callow's range of accents and characterisations were superb... his Billy Connolly-esque John the Baptist and his Ballymena Bible-belt disciple were particularly appropriate (even more so given this was Northern Ireland and the Big Yin was actually performing in the Waterfront Hall last night), and there were aspects of Matthew Hurt's script that were excellent. As a writer myself I have frequently returned to the story of Jesus from the perspective of others around and about him, so it was really interesting to have someone else's take on it. 
This was a humane, if not humanistic portrayal of Jesus, which dodged the bullet of the miracles attributed to him in the gospels... Indeed in the account of the first miracle the author turns the account in John's gospel on it's head and seems to suggest that this was an act of drunken bravado on the part of Jesus in front of his new found disciples, forbidden by his austere mother... Personally I didn't see the need for that... Not, as Terry Blain suggests in the Irish Theatre Magazine because I am a "Biblical literalist"  (which given his comments on the literary history of the gospels and the historicity of Jesus himself we can assume that he isn't) but because it doesn't fit with the trajectory of the rest of Jesus' story... If this had been the case it would have been no more embarrassing to the gospel writers and the early church than many of the other stories about him that they did include, eg. the clearing of the temple, the cursing of the fig tree, the dialogue with the Canaanite woman. Indeed huge swathes of the contemporary church finds the story as included in the gospel of John embarrassing enough, given the time, energy and words wasted on whether the wine that Jesus produced was actually alcoholic... 
Hurt was strongest in conveying a sense of the political and historical context of the story, most powerfully captured in the Callow's characterisations of Herod Antipas and Pilate. But in the end I didn't find the picture of Jesus painted to be a compelling or indeed coherent one, and indeed, found the whole thing curiously lacking in energy or passion, with the ending simply petering out... That may have been a conscious decision on the part of the writer and director Joseph Alford, as a comment on their perspective on the ministry of Jesus, but not only would I disagree with that theologically and philosophically, I also think it makes for anti-climactic theatre.
But actually, the more I think about that, they may be onto something...
Throughout the production there were points where Callow was clearly conveying the thoughts of the author, unfiltered through any of the characters, and in one of those moments, when referring to the audience's expectation of a miracle like the multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5,000, he suggests that the more amazing miracle is that down through the years, despite the reproduction of multiplication of words and churches and Christian professions, 2000 years later there is absolutely no change... He says something similar towards the end as well. it is the classic question of what difference has Jesus made to the world around us. I and others may point to the huge good done in his name through schools and hospitals and individual acts of kindness, whilst Dawkins and other atheists may point to unspeakable acts of horror also done in his name at a national and personal level. Does one balance out the other, leaving a zero sum?
Personally I don't think so, but returning to the metaphor of the miraculous and particularly that first miracle in the wedding at Cana in Galilee, the big miracle in the contemporary church is that we have turned the new wine of the gospel, with all it's powerful passion and compassion, into insipid stagnant lukewarm water...
We may celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ together on a Sunday, but as the curtain falls on another church service, we like Jesus' mother in the closing scene of this play, return home to the everyday, mundane existence of Monday to Saturday where we are just the same as everyone else...
Simon Callow and the author Matthew Hurt offer a vision of Jesus through the lives and words of those around him at the time...
Before we criticise that vision, perhaps we need to take a look at the vision of Jesus that we convey through our lives and words...
Ecce Homo

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Economics of Calvary

I wonder if this cartoon is based, at least in part on a saying of Laurence J. Peter, who said that
"an economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today."
I've said before that I am a financial incompetent, barely capable of balancing my own chequebook, but there seem to be people with little more competence than I have running the economies of countries and multi-national companies. Perhaps this is a function of another of Peter's assertions, (in the principle named after him) that
"In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence,"
People often think that Peter was joking when he framed his eponymous principle, but it is totally serious, deadly so when you consider that the lack of competence of those managing the economies of the world at present is only matched by their lack of compassion; where the answer to economic woes seems to be to penalise those already at the bottom of the pile and cut jobs of public-sector workers, whilst the banksters and politicians who were arguably to blame for the continued economic crisis get off scot free and even argue for pay increases and performance bonuses!
But as we come to the end of another financial year against such a background and in the light of all that we remembered last week, here is a simple poem by one of my favourite Christian poets, Godfrey Rust, that seems appropriate

is the only successful
planned free-market
in the history of the world,

where the cost of living
and the wages of sin
are the same

and the rate of exchange is fixed
at one life
given as a ransom
for many.

© Godfrey Rust 1992

This poem was originally published as part of the now out of print anthology "Breaking the Chains", but that and an additional 120 pages of other material is now available in "Welcome to the World."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Happy New Year

This is the pre-recorded Thought for the Day that should have gone out this morning on Radio Ulster. Not sure what time it was broadcast at as the schedules are all over the place with the holidays, but I'm sure you can find it on iplayer under Good Morning Ulster. 
For those who have been around this blog for a while you might recognise part of it as I shamelessly cannibalised an earlier post for it...
Happy New Year! No I haven’t lost the plot. Over 400 years ago, when they changed over from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, they moved the New Year from the beginning of April and spring, to the beginning of January. And those who refused to change were treated as fools. They were invited to non-existent parties and other pranks were played on them, and it’s thought that this may be one of the origins of April Fools’ Day.
But actually all around the world, in many different cultures there are light-hearted festivals at this time of year celebrating the change from winter to spring… Hope, in place of despair…
Easter is part of that. In its pagan origins it was a celebration of fun and fecundity summed up in a decorated egg. In the Christianised celebration it is an exploration of the grounds of hope for humanity. Yet in many ways the whole of Holy Week might seem like an exercise in foolishness in the eyes of the world…
It begins with the King of Kings entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt… Then within a few days we have that same King, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross...  An exercise in very black humour.
Jesus achieved rare unanimity in his time, bringing together the religious and political authorities in Israel, Romans and Jews, Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians… groups who hated each other with a passion… yet they cooperated to get rid of this Galilean rabbi who preached such foolish and dangerous stuff as forgiving one another, loving your enemy and giving up your riches to help the poor…
But no sooner had they killed him and buried him than his foolish followers were saying that he was risen from the dead. Ridiculous… that just doesn’t happen… It must have been the greatest April fool joke ever… Yet thousands claimed to have seen him… and were prepared to die for that claim… total fools…
It’s not the first time I’ve been called a fool because of what I believe… Indeed at least one person described me in such terms following a recent thought for the day… But if that’s the worst I get for trying to follow the teachings of that fool who died on the cross I’ll take that. As one of those who died following him, Paul of Tarsus wrote
the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
So happy new year to all you fools out there…