Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Wearing of the Red 3

Entirely predictably, the media have been assuring us that Remembrance Sunday is about servicepeople. Many churches, I hope most of them, make a point of saying that it's about all the victims of war, but as always, we're drowned out. To those outside the church, we seem to be supporting the official agenda, no matter what our motives, no matter why an individual chooses to wear a poppy. Everything else is drowned out.

So what do we do, pick another Sunday to remember the horrors of war, or try to redeem today? To do that would require rather more courage, a greater willingness to stand up and be awkward in public, than I think the church is capable of. But maybe I'm wrong. We're going to have a serious think about how we're going to handle it next year. Maybe other churches will as well.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Wearing of the Red 2

Remembrance Sunday always gave me the creeps. We once - a long time ago - asked everyone at church what it meant to them. It didn't mean a thing to anyone. We thought about ceasing to observe it but the leadership we had at the time was too weak to tell the preachers they weren't to do it. We should ask again; it's the one church where I know I can say what I think about war, and all the claptrap we hear about it, and people are going to agree with me instead of getting upset.

For years, I tried to avoid Remembrance Sunday, and dreaded having to take a service that day. Then, in 1997, my girls were caught up in fighting after a coup in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, just as we'd got clearance from Immigration to bring them over. All hell broke loose, and for three days we thought Kumbi, then 11, was on some rustbucket heading for Ghana. Then we found that the ship had fled without the refugees, and that she'd been rescued by the US navy, and put on a plane from Conakry, over the border in Guinea. She'd been in the fighting, arrived very badly traumatised, and she still suffers as a result of what she went through.

Mina, then 5, was taken up country. The phone lines were down, we knew cars were being stopped on that road, and the people killed, and you can imagine how we felt for the next six weeks before we managed to get in touch, and found that she was safe. It took another six weeks to get her put on a plane from Conakry, and shortly after, the rebels went and burnt the town where she'd been staying.

After that, I couldn't handle Remembrance Sunday at all for years. I still struggle; it strikes me as a thoroughly dishonest figleaf for war. We hear a great deal about the military, and next to nothing about civilians. I'm aware of one war memorial for civilians, in Birmingham. Does anyone know any others? That was fair enough when it started; the overwhelming majority of the dead in the Great War were military. Around half the bodies on the Western Front were never found - they're still turning up now, in significant numbers - and families were desperate for closure. However, these days, the overwhelming majority of the dead are civilians. When are we going to start remembering them?

In the Great War, people were suckered into volunteering on a wave of patriotism, or pressurised into doing so; those who didn't were liable to be abused on the streets. Later on, they were conscripted. They found themselves in a war the like of which the world had never seen. It wasn't the first industrialised slaughter; that took place in the US Civil War. It was, however, the first industrialised trench war, with human wave after human wave going to their deaths. British casualties alone on the first day of the Somme amounted to almost 20 000 dead and 40 000 injured. For what, since it was a war fought over nothing at all?

We hear all about Britain and Germany, not very much about France and Belgium, and it's easy to get the impression that it was a Western European conflict. It wasn't; it started over the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the  Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, by a Serb nationalist. There was no diplomatic mechanism which might have defused things, and, led by a poisonous mix of pre-existing treaties, nationalism, jingoism, militarism and commercial rivalry, one imperial power after another was sucked in. We need to stop the rubbish about the victims' 'sacrifice', and admit that they were sacrificed, passive tense, as victims on the altar of sheer nonsense.

In the end, the war came down to a toss-up as to who collapsed first. It happened to be Germany; they got the blame, and had the punitive Treaty of Versailles imposed on them by the victors. The Weimar republic of the 1920's lacked legitimacy; it was imposed from without rather than being an organic development. It collapsed under the pressures of hyper-inflation, caused by the immense reparations imposed at Versailles. Hitler rose to power in the ensuing chaos, and doubtless appeared as a saviour; bringing order, restoring the country's pride and prosperity.

It's not good enough to say that all the bloodshed in the WW2 was justified because Hitler had to be stopped. We need to look deeper; every monster has his Viktor Frankenstein. The Second War was a consequence of the First, and the failure to establish a viable peace. It's all very well to say that Hitler should have been stopped at the Rhineland, but that had been part of Germany before 1918, as had the Sudetenland and East Prussia. It's hard to deny the legitimacy of Hitler's original territorial claims.

When it comes to modern wars, many of them have little or nothing to do with the interests of the nation. Sierra Leone at least had a clear moral imperative behind it; I know far too much about the rebels to criticise, but then I'm biased. At least British casualties were limited to one. Iraq was a straightforward war of aggression; a disaster for the Middle East, for which there was no excuse. I won't comment on what it supposedly did to Britain's moral standing; I don't think they ever had any outside their own vainglorious imagination. Afghanistan had the figleaf of a need to remove al-Qaida, but that withers before the conveniently unpublicised fact that the Taliban offered to put him on trial, and the US refused to negotiate. Again, it was essentially a war of aggression. One again, young men and women are being sacrificed for someone else's political agenda, and for the profits of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about so long ago. Once again, it's being covered up with pious bullshit about 'their' sacrifice. And the church allows itself to be used to give added legitimacy to the slaughter, by unthinkingly participating in the cult of this modern version of Molech. Even worse in a way, we willingly spend the day ignoring the mass killings of civilians. You can't pretend they made a 'sacrifice for their country', so we ignore them altogether.

Remembrance Sunday could be made into something legitimate - I may try to do something with it at my church next year - but only if we resolutely turn our backs on the secular agenda underlying it, and make it into a genuine memorial for all the multifarious victims of mass murder by governments and their allies.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Reading the Bible

Great post from Derek Leman here on 'Reading the Bible Realistically'. It pretty well sums up my own approach. I encountered the Bible - or rather, selected bits thereof, well predigested - at Sunday School, and soon decided that as prople don't really walk on water and stuff like that, I wasn't going to believe any of it. I got bullied, which didn't help, and it wasn't very exciting either, but I've a very clear memory of rejecting the stories.

I got involved in the church again in my late twenties, and soon, like a lot of people, came across fundamentalism. We'd looked at the Synoptic Problem briefly in RE lessons when I was 11, so I was well aware that different Gospels have different versions of the stories. So I wasn't very happy when I found that they read Matthew's version of one of the Beatitudes - 'Blessed are the poor in heart' - and I got jumped on when I quoted Luke's version, 'Blessed are the poor'. This is one of the problems with the way we read the Bible; we read one version of the story, and ignore another. Leman cites the story of the Gadarene demoniac; in Mark, the oldest version, the story takes place near Gerasa, not Gadara. Luke follows Mark; Matthew changed the city, and adds a second demoniac. So how is it we insist the story takes place near Gadara, and only mention one demoniac? We're not looking seriously at any of the three versions of the story.

This brings up another problem; harmonisation. The Christmas story is the classic example; we have two very different, irreconcilable, versions in Matthew and Luke. We take a bit from one, a bit from the other, patch them together with the odd bit from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas - there are no animals in Luke's stable - and by the time we've finished, we have a nice cosy tale which completely fails to take the text of either with the slightest seriousness. It's an old tradition, going back to the days before printing. A complete Bible was about seven years' work, give or take, for highly skilled craftsmen. Books were so expensive that even kings didn't have a complete set of Gospels. People used harmonies, which retold the story using bits from here, there and everywhere, sometimes from apocryphal material, and doubtless a good deal of interpretation thrown in.

And there we have yet another problem. We read the bits of the text with fit - or can be made to fit - our expectations; the nice bits about blessings, not the bits about curses (ever looked at the lectionary readings which miss out chunks of text?); the bits which can be made to affirm doctrines, not the bits which don't. We like the prologue to John's Gospel, for instance, which sounds a bit like trinitarian doctrine (it isn't), and we ignore Mark 13:32, which makes Jesus sound rather too human. The result of our highly selective approach is that we use the Bible to 'prove' docrinal positions which weren't invented until long after it was written, and at the same time, all too often, fail to see what's actually there.

I wiped the dust of conservative Christianity from my feet, and went looking for a healthier way to use the Bible. I've always felt that if we want to call it a holy book, we have to take what it says with the utmost seriousness; if one text disagrees with another, we have to be honest about it. If it contradicts our most precious doctrines, we have to be honest about that too. If it ends up looking like a very human collection of books, rather than something dictated by the Holy Spirit, then that's where we need to be. It doesn't stop God speaking through it, so what's the problem?

The Wearing of the Red 1

Brilliant article here from Robert Fisk, about wearing poppies for Remembrance Sunday. It's a theme I'll return to, but I have to go to a church meeting (when I ought to be on the allotment!) and I don't have time for a proper post.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Liberals like me don't talk about this subject very often, but it's something I read quite a lot about way back before I wiped the dust of conservative theology from my feet. Even then, I felt there was something wrong.

Revival was constantly portrayed as a work of the Holy Spirit; we were just supposed to pray for it, and in God's good time, it would happen. They forgot that the church is also a thoroughly human community. From my reading of church history, I found that lots of people join churches - I think this is as good a definition of revival as we're likely to get - when they see those churches as offering something relevant to their needs. It's no good standing in the market place shouting about people needing to be saved from their sins, if those people don't feel themselves to be sinners. Not only that, I think the Gospel is rather more than justification alone. But that's another story.

Being a Methodist, I tend to think first of the Methodist Revival, as it's sometimes called today. It happened at a specific historical moment, like most of the things which happen to human beings. The old agricultural society, which had been based on access to land, rather than ownership of it, was collapsing. In modern terms, the land was being privatised. The process had been going on for several centuries, but now it accelerated, with the result that large numbers of people were forced off the land. Some of them ended up working in new industries, like the Kingswood miners John Wesley preached to. New communities sprang up, and there was an inevitable increase in poverty.

The Church of England wasn't able to adapt to population movements; it was extremely hard to change parish boundaries, and the normal rule was that there was only one church per parish. I used to live in an area of moorland near St Austell in Cornwall. There was nothing there except a few farms until the development of China clay mining in the 19th Century. The only Anglican church within reasonable walking distance was built in the mid-20th Century. Every village, however, had its Methodist church.

In the 18th Century, everyone, to all intents and purposes, believed the Christian message. They took it for granted in a way we don't today. The dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. If you went to church, and followed the rules, there was at least a fair chance you were one of the elect. If you didn't - and if you lived too far away to get there, that wasn't your fault - they you were likely to be under the decree of reprobation, predestined from eternity for a one-way trip to the eternal gas chambers. There may well have been people going in real fear of hell. When the Wesleys and their friends went and preached to them, taking the church to the people rather than waiting for them to turn up at the door, then of course they responded.

But it didn't stop there. John Wesley was a thinker and a theologian as well as an evangelist. His theology was a response to the situation he found himself in, tailored to the needs of an age which needed to emphasise that everyone, including the reject, may be accepted by God. He did everything he could to meet the practical needs of the poor, and he developed the class system.

This fell apart in the 19th Century, but it provided a community structure for people who'd been displaced and lost their original communities. That may not have been the intention, but it provided something which had never been needed before. We let it die, but other churches have developed it into the house group. It also evolved in a secular direction, of course. Early trade unions grew from Primitive Methodist roots. There may be more radical offshoots as well; I don't know whether there was an organic link, but the class meeting looks rather like the cell structure developed by Victorian revolutionary movements like the Fenian Brotherhood.

Some things have changed; you'd go a very long way to find anyone outside the church thinking about eternal damnation these days. However, lack of community is at least as much a feature of modern life, and probably more so. We're far more mobile, and ever fewer people have extended families around to offer support. Nuclear families often don't cope, raising children who may well be unable to cope in their turn. There's an opportunity there, to offer people a place to go for support and companionship. The church is intended as a radical community, where anyone and everyone can find their place, and that's surely an essential element of the Gospel. I don't believe it can be reduced to a form of words!

There's another thing we can offer people. Value. We live in a world where people have none; where they're treated as commodities. Years ago, when black people came here in large numbers - often at the invitation of the government - they could only get the worst jobs and accommodation, and, all too often, they weren't made welcome in our churches. So they brought their own. I remember meeting an old guy who came here back then, as a missionary from Jamaica. They might be nobody all week, but on Sundays, they had a valued place in the church, and probably a vital job. They might be a bishop or an apostle. I remember a Nigerian woman who was an Archbishop, properly ordained in the Apostolic Succession. I wonder what the Pope would make of that? If we can get rid of our ingrained cliquiness, and put an end to the endless empire-building, we can offer the same. You don't need robes or a fancy title to find your place in God's church.

If we want to build our churches up again - or see revival, which means the same thing - then we've got some serious work to do.