What are the things that matter..?

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Intuitively and instinctively we can sense that Martin Luther King Jr. is right.

But it might actually turn out to be the prior challenge with which we are really wrestling; what are the things that matter? Do we know? Have we forgotten? How can we re-member them?

These questions lie at the heart of our quest for community and justice…

If we die a little each time we fail to speak out about the things that matter…perhaps we could also say that we come alive a little each time we uncover a little more understanding of the things which truly matter…?

 

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Birth Pains

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…When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

‘Birth pains’ are signs of impending birth and they reference the considerable anguish and labour which gives way to this new birth.

I was recently struck by the words of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theoretician whose analysis ranged from linguistics to sociology to political theory. He made the following observation:

 

…the old is dying and the new is not yet ready to be born, in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

 

Whilst his reflections were based on a specific period of Italian political history, they resonate deeply with so much  we observe in our world today; there is much struggle and anguish to produce peace.

 

It is clear that the sour fruits of history- the abuse of power, political corruption, greed and fear amongst others, have produced enormous conflict in our world which is robbing us in so many ways of the joys of our shared humanity. There indeed arises in our time ‘a great diversity of morbid symptoms’; our world is sick and struggling in so many ways. In the prescient words of  the apostle Matthew, the love of many does indeed seem to grow cold in the aftermath of divisive wickedness and evil of all kinds. We may well ask ourselves, as Gramsci did for his generation, if the new is ready to be born in our time?

 

Are we present in the sufferings of the world and is that suffering seeding something new in us or are we immutable and unchanging? Are we so sure of our rightness of formation that we refuse to go through the dying stages of the chrysalis, letting go of our fixed identities to enter the womb of growth and transformation in the hope of the emerging newness?

 

Jesus observed in Nicodemus, a learned teacher of the Jewish Law, a Pharisee, a profound need to enter the ‘womb of transformation’; even with his great learning and wisdom Nicodemus needed to be changed, transformed, re-birthed; to risk the travail of self-giving Love in order to enter into a new quality of Life.

 

The call to love even as we have been loved by God, is the call to hope in the promise of that love to birth a newness in the material substance of our lives. The fruits of this newness, this peace-in-the-material-substance, is what Gramsci and many others seek.
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Resilience or flourishing?

81g3l16743There has been a lot of focus over recent years on the importance of building resilience as if that were the only sustainable answer to the catastrophic impacts of structural inadequacy.

Resilience has to do with the habits and practises we all need to develop which help us to  cope in times of stress and adversity; it has to do with survival in a time of crisis. This is well and good when we define crisis as a temporary episode of ‘intense difficulty or danger’ (Oxford English dictionary). However, when crisis becomes the fruit of an ideological position which severely and negatively affects, on a continuous basis, the lives of some and not others and we expect those affected to become resilient then it seems to me we have a problem; we are no longer talking about an unavoidable crisis to which a valid response would be to build resilience, but we are speaking of a state of affairs or a status quo which produces unequal and unfair outcomes for citizens of the same state/federation/planet. To promote resilience under these circumstances can in effect affirm the very structures which produced the crisis for some and not for others.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ and this saying settles easily, neatly and largely unchallenged in the stoical sub-consciousness of the post-industrialised mind, along with an array of modern idioms like ‘no pain no gain’ ‘you win some you lose some’ ‘take it on the chin’ ‘take the rough with the smooth’ and so on. These phrases have shaped the way we think about adversity and how we may respond to it, but they offer us no guidance as to what constitutes legitimate adversity to be endured and overcome and what constitutes (avoidable/illegitimate?) adversity, the causes of which need to be understood clearly and resisted or reformed. If Nietzche were to smoothly tut out his famous dictum to my son or daughter in the face of the latter’s protestations against the tedium and existential crisis produced by doing homework or learning to tie their shoelaces it would have wildly different resonance than if he were to belt out the same dictum to a line of child slaves weaving carpets. Yes, both the child slave and my own child would need to develop resilience but the reasons for the need for resilience are different; it is this which needs to be scrutinised.

When words and phrases become mobile and slip into use across an increasingly wide range of contexts they can become problematic, it seems to me. When they then fall into the hands of policy makers and politicians they can become dangerous. A word like resilience can, at best and in a legitimate context, be helpful and appropriate, but in another, it can take on rather ideologically-weighted meanings (I’m hoping that some of my socio-linguist friends will offer some further explanations!).

Recent research published by Kristina Diprose and summarised in her report ‘Resilience is futile: The cultivation of resilience is not an answer to austerity and poverty’ addresses the impacts of using the word resilience with an emerging generation of young people. She notes that

The mainstreaming of resilience in policy and politics coincided with the onset of – and long process of recovery from – the worst recession to hit the UK since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It also coincided with a sustained austerity drive from government; the first domestic manifestations of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and a seemingly irreparable standard of living crisis. A generation came of age and abruptly learned to lower its expectations. Resilient communities, resilient sectors and resilient people are required to suffer these troubled times. In this context, resilience resonates more as a statement of survival than of aspiration – and one that entreats people to consider man-made crises as mysterious tests of character.

Whilst she concords with others that resilience, resistance and reworking are all useful contributors to social and political transformation, she goes on to warn that in the light of her own research resilience can prove to be less than effective in the longer term:

Resilience is a way of encouraging people to live with insecurity because the status quo is deemed insurmountable. Thus conversations about climate adaptation and economic adjustment are dominated by discovering how storms are to be withstood, for they are presumed inevitable. An ingenious disregard for living within limits is how people change the world; but energy diverted to resilience leaves little time for dissent and asking difficult questions. Resilience is reactive and distracts from legitimate indignation. It fixes people to the present, hiding the history that fashioned beggars and kings and proves all imaginable change possible.

It seems that the problems begin when we accept a state of affairs as an unavoidable crisis rather than an avoidable and reformable product of human decision-making; after all, who in their right mind would recommend that an undernourished child, no longer able to cope with the cognitive activity of a school day find ways of becoming resilient in the face of their parents gambling habit? Imagine if schools set up ‘dumpster-running’ as an extra-curricular activity for such children in order to re-skill them in urban-foraging for survival. Would that not seem oddly irresponsible and a failure to intelligently address the reasons for the child’s suffering?

What that child and what many who are currently being encouraged to become ‘resilient’ and ‘buck up’ need is for those who peddle resilience to turn their attention to the concept of ‘flourishing’ rather than ‘survival’. For too long it seems, we have been affirming the law of the jungle; ‘the survival of the fittest’ mantra has shaped the way we think about life in a detrimental way and has made us accept the unacceptable.

The biblical model of managing and imagining community repeatedly re-connects with themes of ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’ ‘wholeness’ ‘health’ and legitimate (ie. not by foul means and well-stewarded in the wider community) ‘prosperity’. In spite of the fact that the biblical community (the Israelites or in the NT the Jews), itself often endured periods of genuine and severe crisis, their guiding vision was one of flourishing and abundance for all. The principles of holistic stewardship and the disciplines of wisdom contributed to and maintained the ‘good life’ rather than ‘resilience’. Perhaps this is because, in the wisdom of the scriptural tradition, social and political crisis was not seen as an unavoidable threat or inevitable state of affairs to be endured but rather as a the outcome of a set of simple human decisions which could be resisted and reformed…even if…for rather a lot of prophets it meant losing their head in the process.

Of course, we are not operating in a theocratic state but we are nonetheless sharing the planet with billions of other people and we need to ask ourselves if the concept of resilience (rooted in a scarcity/survival or crisis paradigm) is an adequate or appropriate one to promote the kinds of changes which will be required to enable the flourishing not only of humanity but of all of creation? Of course, there are many aspects to life which are a blend of crisis and challenges and possibilities which need to be navigated wisely and where both moments of resilience and flourishing can rightly be anticipated.

I leave you with another quote from Kristina Diprose:

Resisting resilience does not mean giving up. Quite the opposite – it calls for more courage. Imagine if the time and effort invested in future-proofing ourselves was instead given to fully occupying the present, and to more determinedly realising the change we want to see. The road to recovery is not easy, but with so many people in our communities pushed to breaking point, what other option is there? We can do better than survive: we need to reconnect with our conviction, and bounce back from the brink.

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Post-election reflection on reviving exuberant hope

As the British election results sink in and we move on into the unknown but highly speculated upon future, there is little doubt that the mandate of those of us who profess to Hope, to Love and to have Faith, is largely unchanged…whatever our particular political convictions are. That mandate includes being salt and light; preserving and keeping fresh all that is good in our society and protecting against the toxic ‘social infections’ which ravage and destroy well-being. And, in addition, faithfully bringing revelation, insight and truthfulness into the public square to enable vision and expose lies. We certainly must neither lose our saltiness nor let the light dim and Jesus encourages us to remain in him in order that we ‘bear much fruit’ and stay salty and full of light; in fact his assertion was so strong he added ‘apart from me you can do nothing'(John 15:5). It is a good reminder to keep humble but it is also an urgent call to keep engaged and effective…Thomas Merton, in his reflections of Christian presence and resistance to evil in the chapter The time of the end is the time of no room, in his book Raids on the unspeakable, puts it this way:

It is therefore very important to understand that Christian humility implies not only a certain wise reserve in regard to ones own judgements-a good sense which sees that we are not always necessarily infallible in our ideas-but it also cherishes positive and trustful expectations of others. A supposed “humility” which is simply depressed about itself and about the world is usually a false humility. This negative, self-pitying “humility” may cling desperately to dark and apocalyptic expectation, and refuse to let go of them. It is secretly convinced that only tragedy and evil can possibly come from our present world situation. This secret conviction cannot be kept hidden. It will manifest itself in our attitudes, in our social action, and in our protest. It will show that in fact we despair of reasonable dialogue with anyone. It will show that we expect only the worst. Our action therefore seeks only to block or frustrate the adversary in some way. A protest that from the start declares itself to be in despair is hardly likely to have positive or constructive results. At best it provides an outlet for the personal frustrations of the one protesting. It enables him to articulate his despair in public. This is not the function of Christian nonviolence. This pseudo-prophetic desperation has nothing to do with the beatitudes…No blessedness has been promised to those who are merely sorry for themselves…the meekness and humility which Christ extolled in the Sermon on the Mount and which are the basis of true Christian non-violence are inseparable from an eschatological Christian hope which is completely open to the presence of God in the world and therefore to the presence of our brother who is always seen, no matter who he may be, in the perspectives of the Kingdom. Despair is not permitted to the meek, the humble, the afflicted, the ones famished for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers…They refuse to despair of the world and abandon it to a supposedly evil fate which it has brought upon itself. Instead, like Christ himself, the Christian takes upon his own shoulders the yoke of the Saviour, meek and humble of heart. The yoke is the burden of the world’s sin with all its confusions and all its problems. These sins, confusions, and problems are our very own. We do not disown them. 1.

So how do we go about ‘owning’ the ‘burden of the world’s sin with all its confusions and all its problems’? Even for those who are rejoicing and relieved at the outcome of recent elections and certainly for those who are tempted to despair at the results, there can be no doubt that over the course of the next 5 years our nation faces considerable challenges to social cohesion; the possibility of growing outbreaks of instability rooted in growing inequality has neither evaporated nationally, nor even more significantly, globally and I find Walter Brueggemann’s insights on how we can participate constructively very helpful. In his book Deep Memory Exhuberant Hope: contested truth in a post-Christian world Brueggemann speaks of how we identify the dominant, destructive narratives of our time, their effects in society and how we can imagine and enact alternative narratives which subvert them.  He nails the dominant narrative, or version of reality as one of VIOLENCE:

This can run all the way from sexual abuse and racial abuse to the strategy of wholesale imprisonment of deviants to military macho that passes for policy. It eventuates in road rage and in endless TV violence piped into our homes for our watching pleasure. I suspect that underlying all of these modes of violence is the economic violence embedded in free-market ideology, which denies an obligation of openness to the neighbour who is in truth a deep inconvenience and a drain upon resources. (p6)2.

He suggests that a resistance to this Dominant Version of reality will require acts of ‘sustained imagination’ in 3 main areas: The first area is that of MATERIAL DEPRIVATION  ‘fostered by a myth of scarcity,the driving power of market ideology’ (p6) the antidote to which is a generous sharing and affirmation of abundance which is rooted in the faithful generosity of God the PROVIDER. The biblical account of the provision of enough in the wilderness and Jesus’ feeding of the thousands were subversive counter-narratives to the social myth of scarcity which breeds fear, insecurity and violence. In Brueggemann’s paraphrase, Jesus was demonstrating that even in times of oppression ‘where the gospel is trusted, loaves abound!’ (ibid) The second area he highlights is the BREAKDOWN OF CONNECTIONS-the ‘severing of elemental social relationships’ which drives people into isolation and defensive fearfulness. The antidote to alienation is the affirmation of covenantal community and solidarity which is precedented in the ‘offer of covenant, a vision, a structure, and a practice that binds the “haves” and the “have nots” into one shared community, so that we are indeed members of each other… where one suffers all suffer and when one rejoices all rejoice together…the only available alternative to the dissociation that fosters and legitimates and thrives on violence from below and violence from above.’ (p7) The third and final area he notes as being an important ‘breeding ground’ for violence is the SILENCE ‘of being vetoed and nullified and canceled so that we have no say in the future of the community or of our own lives’ (p.7). The antidote to silence is the legitimation of speech  a ‘speech that breaks the silence of violence and the violence of silence’ which often comes officially unlegitimated ‘from below in the daring speech of the silenced.’ Brueggemann notes a function of the Psalms as legitimating the voice of the oppressed and in doing so breaking the collusion of silence ‘speaking truth amidst power, speaking truth to holiness and evoking newness’ (ibid)

1.  Merton, T. (1994) Raids on the unspeakable, Burns and Oates Ltd.

2. Brueggemann, W. (2000) Deep Memory Exhuberant Hope: Contested truth in a post-Christian world, Mineeapolis: Augsburg Fortress

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Telling stories of folk who do the worst jobs: folk music and justice

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Yesterday, Nancy Kerr won the prestigious singer of the year title at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2015.

Already a respected interpreter of traditional material, Nancy’s emergence as a writer of rare style has drawn comparisons to William Blake in her reawakening of a radical folk mythology as a backdrop for contemporary narratives about love and conflict, motherhood, migration, hardship and jubilation, and the tensions between rural and urban life. 1.

In her introduction to her Bristol gig last November she spoke of the deep disconnect we have with those who provide the goods we consume and the sense of alienation that creates in society. Here are some lyrics from Hard Songs 

Some kind stranger sews my clothes

Back bent low on the sweatshop row

Black is the flag and the smoke of coal

Mothers tears running in your soul

Mothers tears running in your soul

Cold seas running in your heart

Hard songs running in your blood.

1. http://nancykerr.co.uk/?page_id=10

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On fairness, symmetry and beauty: a curation of beautiful thoughts on justice

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A flower at our allotment

When we speak of beauty, attention sometimes falls on the beautiful object, at others times on the perceiver’s cognitive act of beholding the beautiful thing, and at still other times on the creative act that is prompted by ones being in the presence of what is beautiful. The invitation to ethical fairness can be found at each of these three sites…

…present to the mind of the writers of scores of other ancient treatises on cubes, spheres- is a conviction that equality is the heart of beauty, that equality is pleasure-bearing, and that (most important in the shift we are seeking to understand from beauty to justice) equality is the morally highest and best feature of the world. In other words, equality is set forth as the thing of all things to be aspired to…

…The equality of beauty enters the world before justice and stays longer because it does not depend on human beings to bring it about: though human beings have created much of the beauty in the world, they are only collaborators in a much vaster project…

When aesthetic fairness and ethical fairness are both present to perception, their shared commitment to equality can be seen as merely an analogy, for it may be truly be said that when both terms of an analogy are present, the analogy is inert. It asks nothing more of us than that we occasionally notice it. But when one term ceases to be visible (either because it is not present, or because it is present but dispersed beyond our sensory field), then the analogy cases to be inert: the term that is present becomes pressing, active, insistent, calling out for, directing our attention toward, what is absent…

…At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to (Simone) Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center…A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions” (Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 159)

…at moments when we believe we are conducting ourselves with equality, we are usually instead conducting ourselves as the central figure in our own private story; and when we feel ourselves to be merely adjacent, or lateral (or even subordinate), we are probably more closely approaching a state of equality. In any event, it is precisely the ethical alchemy of beauty that what might in another context seem like a demotion is no longer recognizable as such: this is one of the cluster of feelings that have disappeared…

…A beautiful thing is not the only thing in the world that can make us feel adjacent; nor is it the only thing in the world that brings a state of acute pleasure. But it appears to be one of the few phenomena in the world that brings about both simultaneously; it permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure…a gift in its own right, and a gift as a prelude to or precondition of enjoying fair relations with others. It is clear that an ethical fairness which requires “a symmetry of everyone’s relation” will be greatly assisted by an aesthetic fairness that creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness…

…This lateral position continues in the third state of beauty, not now the suspended state of beholding but the active state of creating-the site of stewardship in which one acts to protect or perpetuate a fragment of beauty already in the world or instead to supplement it by bringing into being a new object….The way beauty at this third site presses us toward justice might seem hard to uncover since we know so little about “creation”; but it is not difficult to make a start since justice itself is dependent on human hands to bring it into being and has no existence independent of acts of creation…The two distinguishable forms of creating beauty-perpetuating beauty that already exists; originating beauty that does not yet exist-have equivalents within the realm of justice….”to support” just arrangements where they already exist and to help bring them into being where they are “not yet established”

This curation of quotes were taken from Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and being Just, (2006) and can be found on pages, 97, 98, 108, 109, 111, 114 & 115.

You may like to listen to Elaine Scarry’s Harvard lecture Beauty as a call to Justice

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Book Review: Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Guest blog: with thanks to Marijke Hoek, Co-editor Carnival Kingdom and Micah’s Challenge

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When the apostle Paul addresses the variety of gifts within the Christian community, he specifies that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7, italics for emphasis mine). The gift of providing a high quality legal defence for the poorest is most beautifully described in Bryan Stevenson’s recent book Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption.1

Drawing from thirty years of legal experience defending the most marginalised people in the USA, the author demonstrates the contemporary application of the biblical mandate to speak up, judge fairly and defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:9). As a young lawyer deeply troubled and concerned about the deep fractures and flaws caused by injustice, racial prejudice and inequality, Stevenson was compelled by an urgent sense of vocation to help people plant their feet on higher ground and stabilize their lives. Twenty five years ago he founded the Equality Justice Initiative (EJI) – a pro bono legal practice dedicated to providing high quality legal representation for those who cannot afford it. His commitment to people who are wrongly sentenced, in a criminal-justice system that still supports capital punishment, powerfully demonstrates how advocacy is literally a matter of life and death. Clearly, the legal complexity of Bryan Stevenson’s work requires tenacious commitment, but what emerges most powerfully from this book, is how his work ethic is characterised by a compassionate, respectful and pastoral posture towards each client.

Stevenson advocates, in particular, for a more merciful and restorative approach towards incarcerated children. In view of the harsh sentencing of youngsters and those facing long sentences for non-homicide crimes – in some cases, in the form of solitary confinement over decades – EJI not only advocates successfully for individual cases but also argues with good effect in the Supreme Court for systemic change. The court ruled in 2012 that the mandatory death-in-prison sentences that some states continued to impose on children were impermissible.

So, the ‘redemption’ referred to in the title refers not only to individuals but also to systems and indeed society at large. Stevenson’s audacious pursuit of justice not only aims to secure changes in the judicial process but also has the effect of reorienting individuals and indeed, whole marginalised communities, towards hope. His work reminds me of Jesus’ saying ‘Therefore, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’ The treasures which Bryan Stevenson ‘brings out’  are a clearer, higher sense of justice and a deeper understanding of how people, profoundly shaped by the suffering caused by historical slavery, racist lynching, and the civil rights struggle, are in need of reconciliation. The deep wounds that remain call out for a spirited wisdom that is considerate, full of mercy, impartial and sincere; this wisdom makes way for shalom – individual, relational and communal well-being that constitutes this higher ground for human flourishing (James 3:17).

Stevenson’s roots in his faith are implied on every page of this book. Reflecting on his vocation in an earlier interview, he says

For me, faith had to be connected to works. Faith is connected to struggle; that is, while we are in this condition we are called to build the kingdom of God. We can’t celebrate it and talk about it and then protect our own comfort environment. I definitely wanted to be involved in something that felt redemptive. 2

Explaining his life-time commitment to the legal profession, he quotes Matthew 25:34-40, in which it is predicted that in Heaven, Jesus will say to the righteous:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ The righteous, perplexed, will ask Jesus when they had fed Him, clothed Him, or visited Him in prison. And Jesus will reply: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

Reading Just Mercy makes me ever more mindful of human vulnerability in a harsh world. It makes me deeply grateful for this practice of lawyers who advocate on behalf of ‘the least of these’ and in doing so live out their commitment to the vulnerable in exemplary ways. I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, whose life is such an eloquent testimony of hope and compassionate presence in dark times. His writings and vocation are a challenge to everyone to use the gifts so liberally given to us for the common good.

May we be found similarly faithful.

1. Stevenson, B. (2015) Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption, London: Scribe publications

2. http://blogs.law.nyu.edu/magazine/2007/bryan-stevenson’s-death-defying-acts/

For those interested Fighting injustice in America’s jails is a BBC World Service interview with Bryan Stevenson about his work in February 2015. Bryan Stevenson video is also worth watching!

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