On the joys of being wrong

Isn’t it wonderful being wrong about everything? A year ago we liberals were wittering and twittering over our skinny lattes, end-of-days style. We’d have made Cassandra blush.

We were horrified by the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen and other populists in Europe and beyond.  Later we watched in despair as Theresa May set sail for the edge of the flat earth she and other hard Brexiteers seemed to believe in.  Austria, the Netherlands, France, Germany: where would the next catastrophic populist swing take place?

We’re not out of the woods yet, but what a difference a year makes.  Putin’s projects – to fragment Europe, tame the US and fan the flames of populism – are unravelling before our eyes.

Theresa May is a dead woman walking, according to George Osborne in a glorious statement of Hard Schadenfreude.

Trump is finally under investigation for… firing the man who had not placed him under investigation.

Le Pen is yesterday’s woman in a reborn France.

Merkel goes from strength to strength in Germany. Austria and the Netherlands stepped back from the brink of electing far-right politicians.

And then there’s Corbyn, bless him. Unelectable, hard-left Corbyn, maligned as an IRA sympathiser, terrorist apologist and lost cause, has confounded us all.  Jon Snow’s glorious “Good evening, I know nothing” sums up the bewildered liberal glee about being wrong about, well, everything.

In the most dogged performance since the truck in Duel, Corbyn just refused to give up.  And now, hard Brexit has been halted by… a hard Brexiteer.  All of us committed Remainers hope the whole Brexit project, with its flawed democratic mandate and suicidal outcomes, will now unravel.  But at worst we can now hope for a soft Brexit which doesn’t kill the economy in the name of controlling immigration.

Not that we should be complacent: the forces that drove that populism are not dead, only asleep.  Putin’s not going anywhere fast, Farage is likely to maintain untrammelled access to the nation’s airwaves as long as it suits him, and the daily realities of angry, struggling voters won’t change overnight.

The young have risen from their electoral slumber, but the work isn’t done.  Populism will continue to lurk and await its next dynamic leader. England needs to get over itself and move on from its post-Empire arrogance.  Some of its citizens are still fighting World War II in their heads.

Liberals also need to put their own house in order. We’ve now witnessed the sad spectacle of arguably the most decent, honest politician of the lot, Tim Farron, resigning because he found his faith incompatible with his Lib Dem leadership.   He promised us a second referendum and legal cannabis, the second of which might have been useful depending on the outcome of the first.  He gave the nation its best election laugh (apart from the result) with his “make yourself a brew, watch Bake-Off” line. He told us inhaling was the whole point. Now he’s been hounded out by people who would see themselves as liberals but have totally missed the point.

Leaders in the US, UK and across Europe would do well to learn from the extraordinary courage and grace of Emmanuel Macron.  Even after his impossible, thumping victory, he reached out to those who had voted far-right, acknowledging that the issues which had led them to Marine Le Pen’s fold needed to be addressed.

Rather than condemning, as many of us did (mea culpa), assuming populism was on an upward curve, as many of us did (mea culpa), and grossly exaggerating our reports of the death of liberal democracy (mea culpa), I guess the Macron template of radical, cross-party thought, grace in victory and sheer audacity is one we’d do well to learn from.

 

 

Blowing the whistle on the Manchester blame game

What happened in Manchester was a failure of humanity, not of policing. A young man stood in his home city, barely older than the teenagers he had decided to kill,  and went ahead with his murderous plan.  He had a choice until the final moment.  His last sight would have been of super-excited young people streaming out of the arena after the night of their lives.

We don’t have the moral framework to process this.  Not the planning of it nor the decision to see it though.  Every time we think we’ve carved out a pit deep enough for IS, we need to dig deeper. Not just a bomb but a shrapnel bomb, designed to maim those it can’t kill. Not just a random attack but a specific targeting of a pop concert.  Not just a generalised attack on the public but a seeking-out of women and girls.  We have no words and we have no comprehension.

We also have no understanding yet of how this hate-filled young man will affect the whole direction of our country and of Europe.  He’s probably sealed a Conservative election win, and with it removed any remaining chance of avoiding a hard Brexit. He’s shut down campaigning, giving Theresa May endless opportunities to look prime ministerial and yes, strong and stable.

Police cuts

We need people to be angry with, and there’s a void where the election campaign used to be. Into this void has slunk the accusation that Theresa May herself is to blame, cutting police to the point that we need the army on the streets, and in some quarters held responsible for the bombing itself. UKIP, continuing to strut on its customary media platform as other parties respectfully maintain their silence, accused Mrs May of being partly responsible. UKIP, and some Labour supporters and Remainers, are suddenly on the same page: If she hadn’t cut the police, we wouldn’t be here. (Corbyn’s subsequent comments on foreign policy also seem mistimed and inappropriate).

Scoring political points in this context seems morally questionable at best, and reprehensible at worst. It’s disrespectful to the victims to make political capital out of their personal tragedies.

It seems less likely that the army is on the streets to beef up police numbers, than as a reciprocal “upping of the ante” and a recognition of the fact that whoever built the Manchester bomb might have built others.  It also seems probably that the decision would have been taken however many police officers were available. The army deployment is probably about messaging, not numbers.

All the police officers in the world are essentially powerless to stop deranged and trained members of a death cult targeting public spaces. The soldiers are unlikely to be in the right place to stop an attack, any more than the 20,000 “missing” officers would have been, but as a signalling exercise it’s a powerful one.

If there is an experienced bomb-maker or more bombs out there, it’s a grim prospect in the moral void in which these terrorists live.  “Lone wolf” attackers have recently used the bluntest of blunt instruments – vehicles, kitchen knives.  A lone suicide bomber with such a powerful and deadly bomb has not been seen in either the UK nor mainland Europe in the recent attacks.

Twisted logic

The horror we feel at the Manchester murders is probably close to the horror we felt when Andreas Lubitz  pointed his plane at a mountain.  We had no framework for that, either.  The smiling students who boarded his plane and the chattering masses emerging from Manchester Arena had that much in common: none of them was in a situation where the possibility of being murdered had even remotely occurred to them.

In other parts of life, we wonder, we look around, we tell each other to stay safe and “be careful”.  I was recently at a large market in London when a very loud bang sounded.  Everyone stood stock still with absolute fear on their faces.  After maybe 30 seconds of this frozen tableau, everyone moved again.  We all knew we were in the sort of place likely to be targeted; some small part of our guard was up.  The Ariana Grande audience had no idea they were “targets” in anyone’s twisted logic, and why should they have had? But in future anyone at a similar event will be. It’s a vile side-effect of an evil attack.

Now we watch as the broken families try to find out how to live on.   We think we’ve all suffered but we haven’t; in the huge swell of public emotion we mistake for personal grief (as happened after Princess Diana’s death) most of us soon be back to normal, saddened but essentially unchanged.  We’ll feel we’ve overcome the terrorists by getting back to normal, and we’ll all-too-easily lose sight of the lives that can never be the same again.

But let’s not resort to scoring political points over the bodies of the Manchester victims.  Theresa May’s sweeping police cuts as Home Secretary were arguably the delivery of a Conservative mandate from the public at the previous election.  In this campaign, the police cuts weren’t even an issue before Manchester attack; to watch so many people jump on this bloodied bandwagon has been disheartening to say the least.

I’ve got no time for Theresa May as a politician or prime minister and I have no idea how she squares her faith with her policies. And I certainly have no time for her demented drive towards cliff-edge Brexit, claiming we’re all on the charabanc now.

But let’s not forget what happened was essentially an expression of hatred by a Manchester lad who’d lost his humanity somewhere along the way.  Blame should be laid at no one else’s door.

Ten school-related things about the 2017 Election

  1. Image: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons

    Image: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons

    The 2017 election pits a stern headmistress against a bumbling geography teacher – with a trainee PE teacher cheerily popping his head round the corner. This unpromising cast of characters is about change the course of British history forever.

  2. Do Britons secretly long for a stern, dominatrix of a headmistress? Experiments conducted in the 1970s and 80s suggest we do. This is worrying.
  3. The headmistress has called the election for the stated reason of uniting the staff room. This shows that (a) she’s never been in a real staff room, (b) she doesn’t understand democracy or (c) she’s mistakenly thinking of the North Korean model of democracy.
  4. Strengthening the headmistress’s hand won’t make a jot of difference to the forthcoming Brexit negotiations – as she holds precisely zero cards. (It turns out she’s running a minor public school in the West Country, and no one in the outside world particularly cares what she thinks about anything).
  5. The headmistress has a hotline to God – which is useful, but there seem to be pages missing from her Bible.
  6. The geography teacher means well – but is essentially clueless and is loved only by the handful of A’Level students who’ve chosen to be in his class.

    Cropped image: J.Clarke, Creative Commons

    Cropped image: J.Clarke, Creative Commons

  7. The PE teacher is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He’s annoyed that people keep asking him if he only likes hockey, or is OK with football too.
  8. The PE teacher thinks the school should be in alliance with other schools to benefit from economies of scale and a wider world-view. Being a PE teacher, he understands about winners and losers.
  9. Lots of ex-pupils remember the school in the “good old days” – and preferred it then. There was caning, bullying, enforced religious attendance and name-calling like that currently being indulged in by the class clown. No one was allowed in or out of school grounds and lights-out was at 9pm (or earlier during the Winter of Discontent). Ah yes, happy days.
  10. Not everyone likes PE – but scientific and medical opinion holds that it’s the route to a long, happy, healthy life.

Live, love, lobby: Fighting back against Trump

The atmosphere was not unlike a carnival.  We jostled, we smiled.  We read each other’s signs and laughed out loud.  

It was a great meeting of minds and of witty slogans. One man bearing relevant sections of the US declaration of independence on a giant sandwich board offered his M&Ms to the police.  Across nationalities, ethnicities and religions, across what is sometimes a divide between the police and the people they serve, we shared a joyous moment in history.

Protester at demo

So many witty signs, so little room to show them. This picture from Lauren Jones.

And what a moment.  Children on their first march, standing up for love.  Dormant Vietnam War protesters, now in their 60s, dragging themselves out in the face of illness because they had to do something.  Students, professionals, dogs, the occasional intoxicated lady.   People like me, who hadn’t protested against anything else since our teens, or perhaps ever, and had never made a placard in our lives.

Trump has achieved at least one positive thing: he has galavanised the British people in a way that no issue has in a generation.  Middle England is off its sofas and on the march. We share a collective horror not only that Trump is in power, but that our Prime Minister is literally and metaphorically holding hands with him.

And of course, in a way, she has to.  We can’t afford to cut off the EU and the US at the same time.  Brexit means Trump.  And Trump comes with a free Putin.  The EU, NATO, and even the UN are at risk while Putin and Trump are in power.  This emerging axis of evil is not something we should be anywhere near as a nation.  But Brexit forces us to stay close because we need all the friends we can get.

War in our time

So make no mistake: for all the carnival atmosphere at Downing Street and and at the protests throughout the UK, this is war.
We’re not just fighting a deluded narcissist of a president, runnng the US like a toddler having a permanent tantrum (sorry if that’s unfair to toddlers).

We’re also fighting the deadly strategist Putin; we’re fighting the far-right, empowered and salivating across Europe.  Put in the most basic way, we’re fighting evil.  And neither evil, nor Trump, Putin or the European far-right – including our own UKIP – will lie down without a fight.  Neither of course will the evil Daesh, killing, raping and enslaving on their own vile journey of hatred.

It’s war, and war means casualties.  The truth has already fallen.  “Alternative facts” have become a daily reality, spewed even from the official White House podium. Journalists scramble to sort the “true facts” from the lies, but it’s impossible to correct them all or to ever convince people all of them were lies in the first place.

Counter-productive policies

Amid the surge in lies, lives have already been lost.  The terrible attack on a mosque in Canada is borne of the sort of hatred that Trump’s flawed policies nuture and spread.  I fear more people will have died of Trump before we’re done.  His random ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries is also likely to increase the sort of anger which can lead to radicalisation.

It’s not just unjust and frankly bonkers, it’s counter-productive.  In a bizarre twist, it’s possible Trump’s antics will act as a recruiting sergeant for Remain as well as for Daesh: faced with a choice between Brussels or Washington, Brussels is starting to look a lot more attractive.

Even as we gathered in our carnival atmosphere, families who should have been together in the US were continents apart, and families in Quebec as well as Syria were grieving.  Hatred tears people apart and takes lives.
But what last night’s protests have showed (apart from the fantastic power of social media  and the awesome commitment of the organisers) is that many ordinary people are not going to lie down without a fight.

I’m not currently proud of my nation for cosying up to an emerging  tyrant, but am enormously proud of some of its people.  How do we resist what’s happening on the international stage? We live, love and lobby.  And, to paraphrase Thatcher, who for all her faults would have given Trump a bloody good handbagging: “We march on, we march to win.”

Trump, Brexit and the rise of the right: a Christian response

Right-wing evangelical Christians in the UK and US have just delivered some of the greatest blows to peace, justice and fairness in the Western world since the end of the World War II. What are the rest of us supposed to do?

You don’t need me to list the litany of horror already emerging from the US, as Trump honours every one of his campaign pledges.  With Trump, as with David Cameron and the referendum, there are some election pledges you so wish had been left unfulfilled.

On pretty much the single issue of abortion, the overwhelming majority of US evangelicals overlooked sexual assault, adultery, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, lies, hatred, populist rhetoric, probably corruption, the risk of war, social division, and damage to the weak (not to mention unhealthy ties with Putin and the likely damage to the UN, EU and NATO).  They’re not disowning Trump yet and possibly never will.

Is this what Jesus meant by straining a gnat and swallowing a camel?

It’s ludicrously at odds with the theology of the Gospels. Evangelicals would do well to live for a year reading only the Gospels, and seeing which bits of their world view survive.  Jesus would be turning in his grave, if he had one.  The actions being carried out in his name are a million miles from his words and his example.

In the UK meanwhile, some evangelical Christians also formed a plank of the rickety Brexit shack, led astray by dodgy theology which named Brussels as a modern-day Babylon.

So where does this leave us, other members of the Christian Church, practising Christians who are watching in grief and horror as the world heads deeper into hatred, and possibly even into war?

Can we repent on behalf of one another?

Do we own or disown each other when faced with the catastrophic cruelty of policies unfolding in the US?

Is our silence complicity?

The theologians can have their say.  Collective repentance may or may not have spiritual value, but I know Christians have previously repented over other shameful periods in history, like the Crusades and the silence of parts of the Church in World War II.

Awkward questions

But we can’t weep over the actions of our fellow Christians without looking at our own issues.  They’re tough. Do we hunger for gadgets more than righteousness? Have we outsourced our poverty to where we can’t see it so it doesn’t trouble our consciences? Do we worry more about the price than the cost?

Have we reduced the mighty, humble Christ of the gospels (yes he was both) to a sort of Jesus-lite, a lifestyle add-on, or a panic button to be pressed in times of crisis? Do we feel poor despite having lived through an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity?

Each of us, in the closed-door privacy of our own prayer lives, can be asking God for our right response.  Do we weep, pray, campaign, make disciples? All of the above?

Let’s at least ask the question.

 

A prayer for repentance

Father, forgive us, for we don’t realise what we have done.

Forgive us for our actions,

Forgive us for our silence,

Forgive us for our complacency,

Forgive us for putting the values of our daily lives above the values of your kingdom –

your kingdom which is not of this world and does not recognise the borders we erect.

Forgive us for being motivated by fear not love.

Forgive us when our responses to wrongdoing overlook your commandment to love one another.

Break our hearts for the things that break your heart.

We are sorry that people you love are being hurt, and

We are sorry for our part in this.

Deliver us from evil.

Call us onwards, in truth, grace and humility, to build your kingdom of love,

In the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Have yourself a real little Christmas

20161225_0851151The woods on Christmas morning are alive with birdsong, scampering squirrels and still beauty.  It’s the perfect place for solitude, prayer and quiet joy.

But in a sharp and painful reminder that there is no earthly paradise, a Rottweiler and a terrier come tearing round the muddy bend towards me, out of control, unaccompanied and looking for action.  When their owners emerge and I invite them, albeit quite directly, to control their dogs, I’m invited to do something Anglo-Saxon and entirely unfestive.  I am shaken, my trousers are covered in mud and the peace is shattered.

There IS no earthly paradise, not even on Christmas morning.

We’ve tried our best to cutify Christmas, to feminise angels, whitify Jesus and sanitise the whole story.   It’s all tinsel, stars, angels and shepherds, and quite right too. I like tinsel, stars, angels and shepherds as much as the next person.

But the original cast of characters weren’t clean and sparkly.   As someone pointed out on the radio this morning, there were no handwashing facilities in the stable.  Animals and grubby shepherds, new mother and newborn baby all rubbed along together.

Christmas was not clean. Neither was it bloodless.  Apart from the mess and stress of an unaccompanied birth in an animal pen, there was a massacre of babies.  Grief and cruelty were right alongside the miracle, inseparable from it.  And every single person in that stable was “off-base” in some way or other, out of their comfort zone and not where they would thought they’d have found themselves a few months earlier.

The original Christmas was messy and complicated. The only stable thing was the stable (sorry).  If your Christmas feels unstable, uncomfortable or messy at any point today, you’re closer to the real thing than you realise.

It’s a story of redemption, of a God coming into the mess, not of pretending the mess wasn’t there in the first place.  Of a Saviour touching the mess and making it clean, rather than becoming contaminated by it.  When God gets involved with man it tends to be messy as well as miraculous.

Our world looks considerably messier at the end of 2016 than it did at the beginning of the year. And quite frankly by the time 2017 is done with us, we may look fondly back on 2016 year as the good one.

The original Christmas wasn’t cute, comfortable or clean. But it was real. Have a Happy and a Real Christmas!  I’m off now to change my mud-covered trousers and get clean for the day ahead.