In which I waver from my faith – in democracy

Hand on heart, I have a terrible confession to make. I have been one of those — and we are many, many — who have been secretly wondering if democracy is such a great idea after all. When we see Donald Trump in the White House, and the United Kingdom set on a collision course with the iceberg of a no-deal Brexit — all as a result of the democratic process — aren’t we bound to ask ourselves that question?

I’ve even come up with lots of bright ideas for how to remedy the situation, by reverting to some kind of a limited franchise. People like that foolish woman who greeted the announcement of the 2016 General Election with the cry, “Not another one!” She’d be on my little list. Anyone who didn’t want to vote would be on my list. Anyone who didn’t vote would. Anyone who reads the Daily Mail or the Murdoch press…

They’d all be disenfranchised, and because it was their own fault, there would be concomitant small curtailments of their civil rights. You see how it begins? I’m already ten steps to becoming a Fascist dictator!

So it’s great that Philip Collins has written When They Go Low, We Go High, published last year by 4th Estate, and surely not well enough known. It’s quickly rising up my list of Books That Everyone Must Read (especially if they want to be permitted to vote). (No!) Its subtitle is ‘Speeches that shape the world – and why we need them’. Philip Collins is a journalist, and was chief speechwriter for Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007. Though I’m trying hard not to hold that against him. But chiefly, he is passionate about democracy. This book is all about his conviction that liberal democracy is not only the best form of government, but the only one that really makes human flourishing possible. But he freely admits that democracy is in crisis, endangered on many fronts; though this is also nothing new. Perpetual crisis and danger seems, in fact, to be the permanent state of democracy.

The book quotes and analyses many of the most important speeches that have been made all down the ages, from the time of Pericles to Barack Obama, about the importance of government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The list includes Cicero, Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill, Reagan, Elizabeth I, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King among others. Alongside the extensive extracts are Collins’s comments about how each speech works, what makes it great and important, and why it matters.

The five main sections of the book define five political virtues:

  • through politics the voice of the people is heard
  • politics commits us to persuasion rather than force
  • through politics the demand for recognition can be heard
  • equal consideration of all citizens in free societies is the means by which the material condition of the population is improved
  • when politics prevails, the worst of human instincts can be tamed.

Among the greatest dangers currently facing democracy is populism. On this, Collins writes (p.81)

Populism begins with recriminations about the governing elite and, to use Donald Trump’s extraordinary allegation, their ‘criminal enterprise’. It ends with recriminations about the constitution. All the while it claims to have special knowledge of the will of the people. It is a fraud from start to finish. Plato hated democracy because he thought it led to populist rulers. There is a risk, if we do not find the words to advertise the virtues of conventional politics, that Plato’s anguished prediction will be proved right. The task for the responsible democrat is therefore to describe what has gone awry and find words for a better future, like the wonderful writing in Jefferson’s 1801 Inaugural Address and the compressed poetic expression of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. The solution to disenchanted politics cannot be populism. It has to be better, more enchanted politics.

I realise, reading this, that I had fallen from grace, become a backslider with regard to my faith in Democracy. I repent and recommit, and hope to make amends. But that means that, just as the subtitle of this blog pleads for a re-enchanted Church, so my citizenship pleads for just that re-enchanted politics.

What I want to say

What I’ve prepared to say at the Eight O’Clock Holy Communion this coming Sunday (the Tenth Sunday after Trinity). As usual, preaching to myself before I preach to the congregation:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19.41-42)

It’s probably the year 30 AD. In Luke’s account, Jesus is approaching the holy city for what will be his last Passover. He has foreseen his death and knows that now it draws near. Yet it’s not himself, but Jerusalem, the City, the people, his fellow-Jews, that he weeps for. Why? Because they do not know the things that belong unto their peace.

All they knew was that they were oppressed, under the Roman occupation, part of an Empire they hated and despised, governed by Gentiles whom they regarded as unclean, outside of God’s covenant and therefore hated by God. They expected and longed for a Messiah who would be a king, a man of war, a conqueror to drive out the Romans, set them free, establish a glorious new godly kingdom.

And this would be disaster for them. It would lead to uprisings, rebellions, eventually to the Jewish War of 66-73 AD which would result in total defeat. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Temple destroyed, never again to be rebuilt.

If only they had known the things that belonged to their peace! If only they had believed Jesus and embraced his teaching about the true kingdom, the kingdom of God and what it means. (See the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospels passim.)

But when I consider the world today, I seem to hear exactly the same words: If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

Jesus is still weeping over a world that turns away from blessing – the blessing that comes from seeking God and living by his will – and instead embraces the untruth and the lies that can only lead to disaster.

I think only of our own country. I don’t want to talk about Brexit: whatever views I have about it, some of you will agree with me, and probably just as many will disagree strongly. None of us really knows what will happen next year, to us or the EU, and the problem seems to be that all of us believe only the facts and forecasts we want to believe…

But I already hate what has happened to this country in the last few years: that we have become so divided, not only about this issue, but about so many others as well. Not just divided, but hatefully divided. Instead of being able to have a calm, sensible, rational debate about things, with people who hold different views – trying to listen to one another, to discover the facts and what is true and right, and then discern together the best course of action, all we have now is not debate at all. It’s become almost usual to curse, accuse, hate and vilify people who hold different views. Not only to suspect them of the worst possible motives, but to publicly accuse them of being traitors or worse. Social media has a lot to answer for in this respect, of course, because people feel able to say all kinds of things on the Internet that they would hardly dream of saying out loud in public, or to a person’s face. (Though sadly, saying it in the safety of the Internet makes them bold enough to do just that.) But it’s not just social media! The headlines of supposedly responsible newspapers, and the tone of their editorials, so often seem to want to stir up violent attitudes and reactions, suspicion, mistrust, hatred of ‘enemies’.

What happened to our country? Where did it go? What happened to British values of tolerance, openness, welcome, hospitality, freedom to hold different points of view, and express them without fear, without being accused of being somehow criminal or evil, without being threatened with violence or death?

These are horrible times to live in, perhaps even dangerous times. (And let me quickly say we are all infected, none of us is immune: don’t we all find ourselves beginning to hate people on the other side of these current issues?)

So what are we, as Christians, to do? Join in with the haters, those who want to make and to crush enemies? Run away and hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that all is well?

I believe that we have a different and special calling, which may be the only thing that holds out any hope of healing. Let us, at least, be people who know the things that belong unto our peace.

Because we are Christians, we are people of Resurrection. We believe in life from the dead; we believe in hope even when others think all hope has gone. We are people of reconciliation, because Jesus died on the cross to reconcile the whole world, all people, to God.

So we must

  • Believe: in all that Gospel we claim to believe.
  • Pray: for our country; but especially love and pray for our ‘enemies’, because that’s what Jesus told us to do.
  • Seek God’s kingdom above all us, because it alone, rather than any of the kingdoms of this world, is the kingdom in which our true citizenship is found.

Above all, not give in to what the World wants to do to us: namely, to make us afraid, make us hate, make us give up hope.

Let’s stand tall and say: No, I won’t give in to that. I will not become what you want me to be.

Prayer, in the words of Psalm 46:

GOD is our hope and strength : a very present  help in trouble.

2 Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

10 Be still then, and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen, and I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

Lost Connections, by Johann Hari

When he was 18 years old, Johann Hari went to his GP seeking help. He explained that he felt an enormous emotional pain that seemed to be leaking out of him uncontrollably. His doctor told him a story: that his distress was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain, specifically a low level of something called serotonin. By taking antidepressants, his serotonin level could be restored and his depression would go away. Johann left the doctor, collected his prescription, and took the first of thousands of little tablets. Almost at once he felt relief, his pain seemed to be lifted. But after a couple of months, it returned and soon he felt just as bad as he had before. He returned to the GP, who prescribed a stronger dose. Again he felt an immediate improvement, which lasted for a few months until once more he fell into a severe depression. This process was repeated several times, until Johann was on the strongest dose of SSRIs, which he continued to take for 13 years. The side effects were horrifying. He put on huge amounts of weight as a consequence of almost compulsive junk food eating. And worst of all, he was still depressed. The drugs were not working for him, and he was not alone: although exact figures are not available for the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 5 US citizens are on antidepressants.

It was at this stage that he began to ask why? Why are so many people depressed? Why are chemical treatments apparently so ineffective? What alternative remedies might there be?

His latest book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions, describes the results of his questions. He spent years looking at research data and interviewing the scientists who had collected it. He travelled all over the world, visiting many of the researchers but also going to places where different, innovative ways of dealing with depression had been tried.

His concluded that depression is not in the head, but mostly caused by real factors in the world outside. The one thing most of those factors have in common is that modern society is sick, and it should come as no surprise that so many people respond to that sickness by falling ill themselves. Johann sums this up by describing it as a ‘loss of connection’, because of the way we are forced to live in the modern world. Among the nine causes of depression and anxiety that he has identified, he lists disconnection from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a hopeful and secure future.

If you’re like me, you will respond to a lot of this by thinking, Of course, I’ve always known that; but why then don’t we, or doesn’t society, do something about it? Part of the answer is that Big Pharma makes billions of dollars from the widespread use of antidepressants (also they pay for and conduct most of the research which ‘proves’ the effectiveness of chemical antidepressants); but another large part is that there are too many other political vested interests that resist the major reforms to society that would help solve the problem.

This is a brilliant book, informative, full of heart-warming stories that you just long to see turned into one of those ‘feel-good’ films about people battling against overwhelming odds, to turn around their own lives, and the life of their neighbourhood. There are lots of things we can do as individuals, to lift ourselves out of depression (or to improve our emotional health generally); but much more than that is needed. We need to be working for radical changes to society and the way we live. It doesn’t have to be like this. The changes we need are hard to imagine, difficult to begin, and yet many of them don’t require a lot of expense: they’re simple enough to do, they’re not rocket science.

We know this stuff! Why don’t we do it, and why don’t we protest and keep protesting to the people in power to make these things happen?

Who’d have thought I’d be agreeing with Elton John? But I do, when he says of this book, “If you have ever been down, or felt lost, this amazing book will change your life… Read it now.”

See and read much more about it on Johann Hari’s website.

Is there a Hell?

Tom Wright describes studying Theology in what he calls the ‘heyday of liberal theology’ in the 1960s and 70s. One of his teachers told his students, “There may be a Hell, but it will turn out to be untenanted.” As a consequence of that prevailing fashion, Wright says, most Christians at least within the mainstream churches have become effectively universalists – people who believe that ultimately, everyone will be ‘saved’.

And yes, gentle reader, I am one of those who, although I was not reading for a degree in Theology until almost the end of those liberal decades, find myself most comfortable within a universalist view of humankind’s final destiny. But I also agree with Tom Wright that universalism just won’t hold water in the world we inhabit at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Decades in which we have seen genocides in the Balkans and Africa, bloody civil wars in Syria and DRC, constant wars in the Middle East, terrorist atrocities in Western countries and even more in Islamic countries, where Islamist extremists massacre fellow-Muslims by the hundreds and thousands. Where there are evil leaders who even train children to be suicide bombers, with lying promises of Paradise hereafter.

The Great War of 1914-18 showed up the bankruptcy of the liberal Protestantism of the 19th century, which Karl Barth denounced in his Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics. The German liberal theologians who had not challenged but lent their enthusiastic support to the militaristic war aims of the Kaiser, were equally ineffective in challenging the Nazis when they took over the German State and Church in the 1930s. A new theology was needed, which took seriously the Word and the sovereignty of God, and this became the inspiration for the Confessing Church and younger theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazism. Now that we find ourselves living in our own new age of barbarism, where is the tough new (or old?) theology we need to bear witness against the powers of this present darkness?

Yet I was still secretly hankering after that universalist pabulum. Until I re-read the Rule of St Benedict, one of my favourite spiritual readings. The Rule sets out one of the most gentle, moderate prescriptions for a life of Christian discipleship. The Master claims that he wants to prescribe nothing that will be too severe, or will frighten off the would-be servant of Christ. So far, so good. But at the same time he robustly warns his students about the horrible punishment that awaits those who fail to keep the commandments of God’s Word. Even for the holy pupils in Benedict’s ‘school for Christ’s service’, there is no free pass, no ‘Get out of Hell free’ card, for those who fall short.

So Alison and I found ourselves, at teatime last Sunday, debating whether or not there is a Hell. We didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, no surprise there then. But we did decide that Hell is something like a theological Schrödinger’s Cat.

God must ultimately put everything that is wrong in the world to rights; God must deal with evil and its consequences, and establish justice. Therefore Hell is necessary.

God’s love and everlasting mercy are all-inclusive, infinite and invincible. Therefore Hell is impossible.

Wikipedia explains the dilemma of Schrödinger’s Cat like this:

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Perhaps we have to live on the basis that Hell simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist; but at the end of the day, when the ‘box’ is ‘opened’, it will either exist or not exist.

So which is it? Is the Hell-Cat alive? Or dead? And what will be the moment at which reality collapses into one possibility or the other?

38 years a priest

38 years ago today, I was ordained as Priest in the Church of England. In my morning prayers today, I looked up the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer to read the exhortation in The Ordering of Priests. These are not quite the words we heard in that service, which I suspect had been brought in line with Series 3 or some other revised form of service. But these words express the same sentiment. And they are scary…

YOU have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.

Forasmuch then as your office is both of so great excellency and of so great difficulty, ye see with how great care and study ye ought to apply yourselves, as well that ye may shew yourselves dutiful and thankful unto that Lord, who hath placed you in so high a dignity; as also to beware that neither you yourselves offend, nor be occasion that others offend. Howbeit, ye cannot have a mind and will thereto of yourselves; for that will and ability is given of God alone. Therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. And seeing that you cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures: and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside (as much as you may) all worldly cares and studies.

We have good hope that you have well weighed and pondered these things with yourselves long before this time; and that you have clearly determined, by God’s grace, to give yourselves wholly to this office, whereunto it hath pleased God to call you: so that, as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; and that you will continually pray to God the Father, by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost; that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry; and that ye may so endeavour yourselves from time to time to sanctify the lives of you and yours, and to fashion them after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow.

Clearly no one is worthy, or can fully live up to that high calling. (God knows how any priest could physically or spiritually abuse any person, if they at all remembered those words about causing any hurt or hindrance to any member of the body of Christ, by their negligence…) The ordinary harm we cause by the ordinary negligence of ordinary sinners is a hard enough burden to bear, with words like ‘horrible punishment’ hanging over our heads. The only comfort is that Jesus called some pretty unworthy people to be his disciples and apostles (see the Gospels, passim); and that the Everlasting Mercy is always greater.

How did I dare to do it for all those years? And how do I still dare, when I’m asked to? Because somewhere, and sometimes it seems against all experience and evidence, I do believe that Mercy always triumphs over Judgement.

Why, why, why, Samson?

Blanchard, Pascal, active 1885-1909; Samson and Delilah

Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

Then [Samson’s] brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had judged Israel twenty years. (Judges 16.31)

So ends the story of Samson, according to the Book of Judges. Clearly the word ‘judged’ means something different here, from what we take it to mean. For us, a judge is expected to be a person of wisdom, experience, and knowledge of the law. Samson, a testosterone-charged strong man, bully, boor, terrorist (according to the Philistines) or freedom fighter (according to the Israelites), womaniser and idiot, is of all the characters in the Bible pretty much the most lacking in all these qualities.

In fact, the word translated ‘judge’ does include other significances in the Bible. The entry in Strong’s Concordance for H8199 reads:

שָׁפַט  shâphaṭ, shaw-fat’; a primitive root; to judge, i.e. pronounce sentence (for or against); by implication, to vindicate or punish; by extension, to govern; passively, to litigate (literally or figuratively):— avenge, that condemn, contend, defend, execute (judgment), (be a) judge(-ment), needs, plead, reason, rule.

Well, there may be a lot of avenging and punishing going on in the story of Samson. But very little vindicating, pronouncing sentence in any legal sense, and still less governing. This is a man who can’t even govern himself; it would be remarkable if he could govern anything or anyone else.

When I was a child the biblical story of Samson used to be considered suitable reading for children, in Children’s Bibles and the like. Please don’t tell me it still is. We had to read the story of Samson and Delilah in this morning’s lections for Morning Prayer, and frankly we didn’t know what to make of it. (See Judges 16.4-31) It’s certainly a well-constructed story, as stories go: you have the rule of three, three questions and false answers before Samson finally betrays the secret of his strength (because of his mistress’s nagging and pestering, the narrator tells us); the inevitable violent consequence in his capture and the gouging out of his eyes (suitable for children?!); his final repentance and restoration, so that his enemies get their justifiable comeuppance… But really: what else is going on here? Is this a subversive tale, subverting patriarchy, marriage, male machismo in general? Is it a cautionary tale about ‘marrying out’? (Samson should have fallen in love with and married nice Jewish girls, instead of these sexy Philistine women…) or just against extra-marital sex in general? Is it a feminist tract urging women to get their own back? Is it a dire warning for parents not to indulge their children? Because we blamed the parents: Manoah and his (of course, unnamed) wife are visited by the angel of the LORD and promised a miraculous son who is to be consecrated to God for the whole of his life. But instead of bringing him up to have any kind of respect for that consecration, or any understanding of the Law or what it means to be holy and godly, they pander to his every whim, chasing round the country to negotiate for him to marry some young woman who has taken his fancy, whom their son then deserts on his wedding night, with the consequence that she and her father get burned to death by their neighbours. Nice story.

So, what is this Samson? A thoroughly nasty piece of work? Or a hero and a role model for Israel? I was going to say, Surely not! But maybe that is exactly what he has become: a model for still smiting and killing Palestinians?