Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

MLK

One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

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In the long run, we are all dead

It was famously John Maynard Keynes who uttered the phrase,

“In the long run, we are all dead”.

Since I returned recently from meeting refugees in Jordan, his axiom has been wedged in my mind.

On face value, Keynes’ pronouncement could be understood as a theological, even existential statement. And a pessimistic one at that: if we’re all heading in one direction, what’s the point in trying to change anything?

Sitting on the floor of a run-down apartment in a run-down suburb of Amman, listening to the story of the family of Syrian refugees who lived there, it was hard not to become pessimistic. We had gone there as representatives of Bible Society, taking a package of food and essential items at the request of the family themselves and on the recommendation of mutual friends. Yusuf, Aisha* and their two young daughters used to live in a suburb of Damascus, one in which they and other Sunni Muslims lived peaceably with Shia Muslims, Christians and Alawites. Theirs had been a normal, lovely family life. In Damascus, Yusuf had his own business, making and selling shoes.

But one day in 2013, life was rudely interrupted when the civil war brought death to their neighbourhood, in the shape of the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.

Through a veil of tears, Yusuf told me how these brutal soldiers behaved like animals, beheading two of his Christian neighbours. Yusuf escaped with his life, although not before he witnessed a massacre and was himself shot in the leg. He and his family fled to another part of Syria, eventually making it to Jordan and to the squalor, unemployment and despair in which they now find themselves.

As I write these words, the facts take on a strange unreality. I have to remind myself that these events really did happen. Looking Yusuf in the eye was enough to confirm it.

In the long run, we are all dead.

The truth is Keynes, the Economist, was making an optimistic case for taking action when the economy was failing and people were suffering unemployment and hardship. His was an injunction to do something, to take action, to believe in a better alternative, to not submit to despair and powerlessness. It was a statement of faith and of hopefulness.

Yet there is another, deeper, place of faith, and of hope, compared to which the hope of Economics is a mere shadow. It’s the reason why we were sitting in that apartment in a slum in Amman with a family who had been though more horror and hardship in a few months than I expect to have in an entire lifetime.

As he thanked us for the food parcel, Yusuf asked me why we had come. I was able to tell him of a Great Commandment, of an injunction to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, of a view of the world in which we really are our brother’s keeper, whoever and wherever in the world he is.

And I was able to offer a message of hope to him and his family;

The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord cause his face to shine upon you, and be gracious towards you. The Lord turn his face towards you, and grant you peace.

In the long run, we’re all dead. So in the short run, let’s learn how to love.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned in the story.

Do Not Worry

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.

The kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

When the columnist Mary Schmich wrote these words in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 they, along with the rest of the column Wear Sunscreen became a viral sensation. They so struck a chord that when Baz Luhrmann turned them into an ambient dance track, it became a number 1 hit in several countries.

I was partly responsible for the success of this single (well, I bought the CD along with thousands of others). There are some great one-liners in there: Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone; The older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young; Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85; and of course, wear sunscreen. But the stanza above has always particularly struck me.

I was recently blindsided in Guatemala when I met José*. I’d gone with my colleagues from the Bible Society to a government-run shelter for children just outside of Guatemala City. All of the 800 boys and girls in the shelter were in some way or another wards of the State. Some were orphans, some had special educational needs, and some had been rescued from gangs – nine year-olds who had been given a gun and told to kill. These children rarely if ever leave the shelter, both for their own safety and for the safety of others.

During my visit I had the privilege to speak to fifty of the boys as part of a gathering organised by the Bible Society volunteers. What do you say in such a situation? I’ve rarely felt so inadequate. As I stumbled through a short talk about David the Shepherd boy, I was increasingly aware of the privileges of my childhood and that of my own children.

After I’d finished a young man, José, asked to speak with me privately. As we withdrew to a corner I asked, via translation, what was on his mind. Immediately his face, which had been a hard and expressionless mask, crumpled as the tears rolled down. Between sobs, José told us that when he was a young boy, he was abandoned by his parents and taken in by his aunt. Not long afterwards, his aunt also abandoned him and he became a ward of the State, entering the government shelter aged 11. In the intervening years he has never been visited by a family member. Not once. This is the same experience as eighty percent of the children in the shelter. Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, he is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls. And he was terrified. He was preparing to leave the only home he’d ever known, for a world that had, in the experience of his short life, totally rejected him.

I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, the isolation. And the reality was, as I stood with José in the concrete yard of an institution full of forgotten children, that Schmich’s words on their own, however valiant in sentiment and however beautifully-crafted, had a hollow ring to them.

But there’s another famous passage that exhorts us not to worry. In the Gospels, Matthew records Jesus saying:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6

These words took on a new meaning for me that day. And how, might you ask, do they differ from Schmich’s poignant soliloquy? Because we are in the hands of God himself. Not a distant, impersonal God, sitting on a cloud, itching to punish us. But a God who broke into our world as a helpless baby, born with the hint of human disgrace hanging over his head; the child of refugees, hunted by the authorities, raised in poverty and persecuted for bringing a message of mercy and love.

Guatemala Volcano Antigua

In the light of Jesus’ own story, every one of those children in that shelter can afford to hope. All of them can have a bright future. And if the Bible story and its message of restoration seems distant to them, all the children have to do is look at the lead Bible Society volunteer, Michael*: his tattoo-sleeves, his jail-time for gang membership, and the humility and fatherly love that he brings to them every week in a place that so few will visit.

I and the Bible Society volunteers were able to remind José of some of this. Where my words failed me, God’s words were enough. As we wept together, I was able to remind José of God’s promise to Jeremiah, that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you“, of the words of the Psalmist that he was “fearfully, and wonderfully made”. And I was able to share those other words God gave to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 

 

*I’ve changed names for the sake of the safety and dignity of the people concerned.

Northern Light?

Watching from the side-lines of the Labour leadership contest it seems that, so far, very few big ideas have been declared by our four candidates. Of course, the tabloid caricatures have been cast: from so-called Looney Left to so-called Blairite Revisionist. Meanwhile we wait for something to happen.

But the reality is that so much is up for grabs. Will we move back to the Centre? Will we return to the comfort of Blairism or continue the more radical critique of Miliband and beyond? How will we reconnect with the electorate of Middle England whom it seems we failed to persuade in the General Election? How on earth will we come back from the debacle of the Scottish result soon enough to perform well in next year’s Holyrood election? The political landscape has changed. And we somehow have to chart a course through it over the next five years.

Perhaps the first step in determining our direction of travel is to work out where we’re starting from. One of the most instructive articles prior to the election was by Paul Mason. He argued that the country is now dominated by three groups; ‘Scandi-Scotland’, the asset-rich south east and post-industrial Britain. He argued that the Scots, south-eastern England and the post-industrial North and Wales are now living out conflicting narratives. The danger for the Labour Party is that while Blairism recognised this trend and adapted to it, winning seats in the south, we were wrong to assume that post-industrial Britain and Scotland would come along for the ride.

Mason also points out that the SNP and the Tories have captured the zeitgeist of their heartlands well. Labour has not, ceding votes to Ukip, the SNP and the Tories. The upshot is the loss of Scotland to the SNP, the loss of the South East to the supposedly more aspiration-friendly Tories, and the huge increase in the Ukip vote in the North. If Ukip were as good at politics as the SNP would Labour have lost more seats in the North? Almost certainly. Labour needs to ensure that we don’t miss the writing on the wall: as well as developing a narrative that wins back Blair-era southern voters and reclaiming our place in Scotland, we need to talk about The North.

The long-term status of the North as a Labour heartland cannot be taken for granted. The tribal loyalties and family connections which used to define our presence in the North are waning. It’s arguable that, like the industry which once defined it, Labour’s roots in these communities have loosened. The roots are not gone. But we cannot afford to go any further without tending to them.

True, all is not lost. As accurate as that Maggie Simpson electoral map was, there remains strong support for Labour in the North East, and in urban centres like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. Indeed, in areas like Wearside – first to declare on polling day – incumbents Julie Elliot, Sharon Hodgson and Bridgette Phillipson all increased their majorities considerably. Labour is still the party which can best represent the North. But to do that we will need to both up our game and lobby for changes that will allow the North to flourish again.

Sandwiched between the resurgent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, pressured by protest votes, underwhelmed by deepening apathy and left behind by the relative affluence of the South East, the North has been taken for granted; not just by Labour but by the country as a whole.

That we have a dysfunctional economy, far too dependent upon London and the South East, is obvious. This imbalance is evidenced in the inequality that we find all over: from the East End of Glasgow to the docks of Sunderland, from the valleys of North Wales and, ironically, to the outskirts of London itself. Our politics also remains heavily-weighted to London with Westminster, and to some degree the London Assembly and the Boris Effect, creating a self-fulfilling gravitational pull for investment. This fact was only partially-acknowledged during the election campaign, even although it affects the whole country.

But crucially, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Parliaments and Assemblies to represent their voice and some of the powers needed to stimulate their economies, the North has been left with only local, and not regional, government.

The North has a problem. It has been taken for granted and ignored. But even now the Labour Party remains the best hope for a transformed, empowered and dynamic North. So what should we do?

In Glasgow, to be ‘Clyde-built’ was once a badge of communal pride, something that helped shape the identity of an entire city: it’s now a nostalgic reference to the industrial heritage of ship-building. At one time, the relationship in parts of the country between local education, employers and the wider community was so inter-related as to be inseparable. Even football clubs were part of this eco-system, with teams like The Blades, the Potters, the Cobblers or the Brewers named after the local industries. This socio-economic model is no more. All we have left are traces and disconnected parts. And it’s not just the loss of jobs and consequent wealth of previous generations which leaves a hole, but the dilution of the very sense of identity which many communities found at least in part from the ‘Made in’ stamp.

So what’s the lesson here? Firstly, communal identity can be an important factor in socio-economic success. The community that works together, stays together, it seems, even after most of the work has gone. Secondly, if we are to create the modern equivalent to the old communities centred around local industries and stimulate integrated local economies, focussed on creativity, hard work and shared identity, then more power needs to be held more locally. This is the opposite of the individualistic approach of neo-liberal economics in which each ‘producer’ is a singular widget in a vast economic machine. It’s an alternative to the creeping authoritarianism of the SNP in Scotland or the Conservatives in England.

But we need to go above the level of the immediate town and the Local Authority. It’s the impact of that core Labour ideal – solidarity – which will help the North as a whole find its voice, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.

Politically this puts Labour in a complicated situation. We began devolution but we didn’t see it through, side-tracked by wars and declining radicalism after years in power. The result is a half baked devolution which is itself the cause of some of the tension felt in Wales and the North. Why shouldn’t Wales have the same powers as Scotland, ask Plaid Cymru? Why should the North be ignored or need to resort to ‘take us with you Scotland’ pleas after a Tory victory? George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ whether real or imagined is clearly intended to begin the decontamination of the Tory brand in the North and to centralise power in the hands of a sprinkling of city Mayors. To oppose it looks like meanness, yet if Labour is to reclaim the strong support of the North we will need to be much bolder than Osborne.

It is too soon to be setting policy for 2020. We have a leader and deputy leader to elect first and a defeat to digest. At the same time we must not cede the North to the Tories or to UKIP. For that to happen we must develop a strong narrative that offers hope to communities too often left behind; the non-voters, UKIP voters and those in Pudsey, Colne Valley, and Keighley that don’t like what Labour had to offer this time round. The offer must give hope to communities which have had little since before Thatcherism, communities New Labour too passed by.

And it has to be about more than devolution; it has to involve power and money. Bad decisions made locally are just as bad as bad decisions made far away. Labour needs to be content with the direction set by the North being different from that of London, the South, Wales or Scotland. This will require ambitious policy and a clear settlement for the other parts of the UK. The risks are real, the rewards – not least for the people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Grimsby – are huge.

We end with some tentative suggestions. If power and money are needed in addition to deliberation, any devolution must involve tax raising powers, a demarcated area that is ‘the North’, and the ability to make choices which are different from those of surrounding regions.

We believe that this would be best realised by the creation of a ‘Mayor of the North’, a First Minister of Northern England. This role would have powers and budget akin to the Mayor of London, would be directly-elected every five years in line with Parliamentary Elections, and would be scrutinised by a Northern Assembly comprised by 100 Councillors from the Local Authorities of the North. This new tier of ‘super-Councillors’ would be paid a full-time wage and would split their time between their Local Authority responsibilities and the Northern Assembly.

Assembly Members would be elected by their peers in the Local Authority which would form an Electoral College, itself reflective of the popular vote in each Local Authority election. The Assembly (which would be at least as powerful as the London Assembly), and the Northern First Minister would operate a significant budget garnered from both Central Government and a proportion of Local Government Council Tax receipts and Business Rates. These funds would be used across the range of powers currently devolved to Local Government. But, significantly, the budget could also be allocated to one-off infrastructure or other flagship projects.

There are of course questions to be answered: How would such an Assembly and First Minister work in partnership with London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? Where in the North would they be based? What would their exact powers be? How would the relative responsibilities of the Assembly and the councils of the North be integrated? Should this form part of a wider new constitutional settlement that finishes the incomplete devolution of New Labour and that benefits other regions?

These questions cannot be answered definitively without some degree of trial and error. But this is nothing to be scared of. These proposals are less dramatic than the waves of devolution the Celtic nations have experienced since 1999, continuing up to this day. And those waves are only moving in one direction.

Our challenge is to continue to outwork our mandate as the unity party; the party which transcends nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest, and which instead cultivates flourishing, confident communities that are rooted in social justice. To achieve that we have to do something that political parties don’t like to do with power: we have to give it away.

Campaigning 101

It’s only a few days since the debacle for Labour that was the 2015 General Election Result. The Tories have shuffled their cabinet, and we in Labour are currently shuffling our feet, thinking what to do next. So, whilst the posturing for the leadership contest gets underway and the weeping and gnashing of teeth slowly abates, I feel drawn to dwell on the lighter side of the campaigning of the last few months.

This was my first, end to end, General Election campaign and I’ve learned a lot. Here are the top lessons –

    • Comfortable footwear should not be under-estimated. This campaign saw me destroy three pairs of shoes. When you’re walking up to 15 miles a day, you want to be comfortable. Neon is optional though.

Campaigning Feet

  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. My knuckles are evidence that ACME Cheese Graters Ltd also has a nice side line in letterbox design.
  • Dogs can be more cunning than you expect. It’s not the big ones or the loud ones that you have to watch out for; it’s the wee ones that wait silently under the letterbox that will give you a heart attack.
  • Take necessary precautions against chafing. Enough said.
  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. Who ever thought it was a good idea to put a letterbox at the bottom of a door?
  • Having a door shut in your face is a political rite of passage. A bit like childhood picnics in Largs, it’s not nice, but it’s characterforming.
  • Watch out for the SHOUTY MAN. You may not know it, but somewhere, even now, a SHOUTY MAN is poised in a hallway, just waiting for you to knock his door whilst wearing the wrong badge.
  • Some shortcuts are not all they promise to be. That route to the next door that avoids you having to go back up the path and down the next path? It’s a shrubbery. Just don’t.
  • Fuel up on polling day. Even if you’re campaigning in the seat that prides itself on declaring first (Sunderland), 7am to 1am is still a long time to stay alert. Bananas and French Fancies are essential.
  • We’re in a Party Rosette Arms Race. Did you see the size of some of those UKIP ones?
  • The Voter ID Board is like the Ring of Sauron. One ring to rule them all…The power of the board can do funny things to some people (not just Hobbitses).
  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. What are those brushes in the middle for? No-one wants to fight a hedgehog just to deliver a Sorry You Were Out card. Posties, I salute you.

But the greatest lesson of all? It’s that fighting for your ideals, taking them out onto the street, to the doors of strangers, and doing your bit to work for a better society is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Redeeming Politics?

What would it be like to be awoken suddenly by your parents in the middle of a starry night, to roll yourself out of your bed, run down the close, and tumble into the Anderson Shelter for fear of the incendiary bombs that are falling from the sky?

What would it be like to drive a truck back and forth to the front line, constantly under fire, bringing back the dead and wounded from the battlefield slopes of Monte Cassino? How would that affect your view of the world? What would be your reaction to losing your best friend to the arbitrary trajectory of a high explosive shell? How do you think you would spend your life in the aftermath of these events?

Even in our turbulent times, it’s hard to imagine what my Grandparent’s and their peers had to endure during the Second World War. It’s also difficult to grasp how, after all they experienced, they managed to pick themselves up and throw themselves into building the peace, and to renewing a society which until that point had been grossly unequal. My Grandpa in particular found an outlet in the Union movement and in local politics to play his part in creating a new kind of society. If Union and Political Party membership is anything to go by, so did millions of others.

But by the early stage of the 21st Century this civic engagement – and in particular, engagement with politics – has become much more of a niche pursuit as apathy, disenfranchisement and disaffection with our political process has grown. Just ask any taxi driver the views of their customers on politics for a depressing insight into the rise of cynicism.

It’s become an almost-hackneyed idea to encourage voting by an appeal to the sacrifices of previous generations. For me, the stark contrast of how things could have been without the victory over Fascism secured by people like Bill and Cath, remains a powerful reason to not just vote but to get involved in our political process. But the truth is, it’s not really enough for many people today. Many feel that politics is something which happens to them, not through them, and have entirely given up, on the trip to their local polling station on Election Day, let alone any more active involvement in politics.

Although this spectrum of non-voters includes those of all Faiths or none, it’s interesting to note that, according to recent research, 8 in 10 Christians are likely to vote in the election; double that of the general population. With the first General Election in the UK in five years nearly upon us, one which is likely to be the closest and most unpredictable in a generation, why is it that Christians generally feel more of a compulsion to use their democratic franchise than others? And can this inform those who have lost hope in our democracy?

First though, a confession for the Register of Interests: I’m not only a Christian, I’m a Labour Party member and on the left of the political spectrum. Everything I say here comes from that perspective.

So, what kind of politics are we aiming for? Let’s assume we’re talking about democracy only. It’s what we’ve got, and as Churchill famously said,

“democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Simply put, democratic politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, and through which we express our understanding of Public Good.

This should be a concern for all people in society, and it’s certainly the concern of a Christian and Biblical worldview. Understanding and then creating Public Good is something that we can either participate in or not. But it’s never something which we can remove ourselves from. As Nick Spencer has said, “However much we might attempt to privatise life – whether through the adoption of human rights or the extension of market mechanisms into every aspect of life – shared public “space” is an irreducible phenomenon, and public space which is not simply anarchy must be governed by some idea of the public good”.

So why is Public Good so central to a Christian worldview, and how can this guide how we assess our politics, and even how we use our vote? I believe that the political party which most closely applies the following ideas in its policies and vision is both worthy of your vote and likely to form the best government:

Love of neighbour – we might as well take first things first. The injunction of Jesus to love your neighbour as yourself is the core idea at the heart of Christianity on how Christians should aim to live with other people. For the avoidance of doubt, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes it abundantly clear that this means all people, including our enemies. If politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, loving your neighbour through politics means that we should shun individualism, selfishness and sectionalism in all areas of life, including in government.

The equal worth of all humans, before GodPart of the reason that we’ve to love our neighbours is because we’re all equally sinners (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and because we all equally and beautifully reflect the image of God. In this sense, all humanity is equally precious and equally broken: no-one is inherently more valuable than another. Our political system and the Government it produces should reflect this in the way it views individuals, taking as a first principle the idea that all citizens have the same intrinsic worth – regardless of their social standing or background. But Governments should do more than recognise our inherent equality; they should actively work to reduce inequality. The Biblical understanding of human nature recognises both our tendency towards fallibility and the immense capacity within humanity for progress. If applied by governments, this understanding would lead to policies that encourage the goodness within humanity to rise to the surface and empower those who have been marginalised by the brokenness of our world.

God’s deep concern for Justice Love and Justice are closely intertwined. As renowned Evangelist and theologian Tony Campolo has noted, “If we stop to think about it, justice is nothing more than love translated into social policies”. Although the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross is the best example, God’s heart for justice is a consistent theme throughout the Bible and indeed throughout human history. Reflecting our creator, at our best humans recognise and express justice in our relationships with one another as we act upon the Moral Law (as described by C.S. Lewis) which we find within ourselves. In this sense, justice is simply love manifested in our interpersonal and social relationships. This is equally true when we think of government. So, to reflect God’s desire for justice, the Politics that Christians support should be that characterised by justice: economic, social and criminal.

Righteous and Servant Leadership – Whereas the typical approach to politics in general and leadership in particular has centred around the control of power – most often of one group over others – the Biblical template for leadership is one of humility and service to others. This template for leadership and authority again stems from the idea that we are to put the needs of others before our own. In the New Testament we see the explicit teaching of Jesus about the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last first. Practiced in politics, this counter-cultural worldview would create a system of governance in which elected officials would truly be public servants. This therefore requires a leadership which doesn’t accrue power for its own sake, but for the sake of the society it serves. It also implies the need for a political process which is open, transparent and which provides checks and balances against our autocratic tendencies. Finally, righteousness (often called integrity) is a characteristic of a servant leader who doesn’t accrue power or wealth for themselves. If you are truly serving others, you are not seeing political leadership as an opportunity to benefit yourself or your clique.

No political party perfectly reflects these values in their ideology. And political leaders will always let us down. But it’s incumbent on each of us to make a judgement about the individuals and political party which we think most closely characterise them, and give them our support, if only to hold them to the standards that we expect.

I know I have. And so did Bill and Cath.

Live at Peace with All

Stumbling along the dusty alleyway in the pitch black, guided only by the light of my mobile phone, my mind grasping for the lessons of my recent Hostile Environments training (Hint: don’t walk down a dark alleyway overseas), I really could have been anywhere.

Unless, that is, you ignored the wall of sound assailing me from both sides of the alley. On one side, the rhythmic chanting of the Muslim call to prayer jutted up against the melodic praise songs coming from the Pentecostal worship event, opposite, that I had just left. It was this fact which placed me in northern Sub-Saharan Africa; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to be precise.

For it’s here, in the Horn of Africa and the region known as the Sahel, that the populations – and necessarily the worldviews – of Christianity and Islam live cheek by jowl in the most explicit way. It’s not that the people of the world’s two largest religions can’t be found living in close proximity elsewhere; from Indonesia to the Balkans.  But it’s in this region of Africa that the populations tend to be both the most numerous and the most equally-balanced numerically. Regionally, there is no overwhelming majority of one faith group over the other: such as there is in the United States, or in the Middle East.

Of course, you also find a liberal sprinkling of secular democracy and other political ideologies, and those of both other religions and none. Ethiopia is, after all, a strictly-secular post-Communist, semi-authoritarian state. But it’s arguable that the majority of the population tend to find – perhaps increasingly – their transcendent identity (that is, beyond national, tribal or temporal boundaries) in their faith.

This scenario is peculiar to the popular culture of Western Europe on two counts. First, these are overwhelmingly-religious societies. The language of God is the norm, not the exception. Second, the significant and long-term influence of two of the world’s great religions makes for an interesting mix when it comes to negotiating contested public space. I suspect that – in the UK – the wall of sound which I experienced in this Addis Ababa alleyway would quickly attract the attention of a local government official in a High-Vis waistcoat, investigating complaints of noise pollution.

So what can The West learn from Africa about religion in the public square?

Not all religion is the same: Religion is being increasingly discussed in publishing, the media and politics. There was a time when the mantra ‘We don’t do God’ seemed to fit perfectly with the times. No more. The twentieth century axiom that religion has had its day, and that social progress will see the inevitable triumph of secularism and rationalism over mysticism and faith is looking very tired indeed.

But even as religion is increasingly discussed – in the polemics of militant atheists or in BBC documentaries – there is an astonishing level of illiteracy on the subject. The preceding hundred years of religious decline in the West really has impacted the common understanding of what were previously well-understood (if not always accepted) beliefs. Aside from a general ignorance of religious beliefs and practices, the most common mistake by many commentators is to lump all of the world’s faiths into a silo marked ‘Religion’. This is rarely explicit. But it’s often very clear to the faith-based viewer that many commentators really don’t understand the very fundamental differences between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and the rest. Sure, these religions share many things in common; for example, the Golden Rule. But their core existential beliefs are also fundamentally at variance, leading to very different practices and worldviews across a range of subjects and even in their understanding of the purpose of life itself. The three Abrahamic faiths share much in common. But you only have to raise the question of the nature and purpose of Jesus and soon very different beliefs with their consequent implications will emerge. Even within religions, there can be considerable differences in belief between different denominations, sects or branches; Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Reform and so on. These differences need to be acknowledged and understood.

Religions are often competitors but not necessarily antagonists:  In spite of these differences, antagonistic relationships between religions are not inevitable. Of course, antagonism can be found easily enough. But conflict between humans of divergent identities can be found everywhere, even where religion is largely absent. 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – need I say more? Indeed, religions abound with resources to support an ideology of social harmony, peace-making and conflict resolution. Disagreement – even fundamentally so – is not inherently unhealthy. It is how we manage and accommodate our differences that matters.

There is a place for religion in public – and not just private – spaces: Part of the dominant narrative of Secularism is that, in order for fairness to be delivered, competing religious worldviews (interestingly, not other worldviews, only religious ones) should be consigned to the private sphere; what you do in your own home is up to you, but don’t bring religious reasoning or practices to the public square. As a result, religious groups who take their faith seriously have often found the public square to be a cold house for them. This is particularly true of counties like France, where the only religion allowed in the public square is the Cult of La Republique. Make of that what you will. But one thing is certain: if we are to address the threat of Religious Extremism, we must be careful not to marginalise religion as a whole. Which is why:

Theology Matters – Much of the lurch to Islamist extremism has been fuelled by bad theology. Of course, it has also been fuelled by an autocratic Saudi state awash with petro-dollars. But an extreme Wahabist interpretation of the Quran and Hadith in Sunni Islam is primarily a theological issue. The solution to this bad theology cannot be no theology: it is not an effective option to simply disengage with or parody the warped theology of ISIS or the Charlie Hebdo murderers. The ultimate solution to the problem of Islamism, Hindu Nationalism – or even the attempted co-option of Christianity by some elements on the extreme right – is good theology.

We need to do more to understand the complexities, differences and, yes, similarities between religious worldviews in order to understand how we can best live together. To this end, I’m reminded of two sayings of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. As we seek to address the core existential questions and understand divergent beliefs, we need to ‘Be transformed by the renewal of our minds’. As we seek to learn how to live together we should follow Paul’s injunction:

“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good”.