Thought Provoking Thursday – War and Peace

Well, for this one, I know I am in the minority, and so hopefully provoke a few people to thinking.  I am purposely not going to take a philosophical or religious perspective.  I believe there are compelling thoughts there that challenge the prevailing view that wars are sometimes necessary and even favorable, especially when the outcome favors the nation from which we derive.  Most would applaud the Western allies’ victory over Germany and Japan in the second world war, even if regretting the millions of lives lost.

What sparked my thought process here is based more from a historical perspective, and I owe much thanks and appreciation to Dan Carlin and his podcast ‘Hardcore History’.  I recently finished a 6 parter entitled ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’, which focused almost entirely on the four years of war between 1914 and 1918, otherwise known as the First World War.  Whilst this was a fascinating and engaging history lesson and covered much of the chronology of those years, what really struck me was the fact that this and other historical events can never be taken in isolation.  In particular, the impact of the First World War on what would become an even greater loss of life and devastation between 1939 and 1945.

The first of these awful conflagrations was kicked off by a single event in Sarajevo, Serbia, when Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ style gunman with the name Gavrila Princip.  Now, there are plenty of assassinations that never lead to any kind of war, let alone a major war involving most of the world’s nations.  But in this case, country after country was drawn in due to honoring of treaties, invasion of neutral territory and other political expediencies.  Millions died and, in many battles, in numbers never before seen and circumstances that rarely gave any real advantage to the winning side.  These were bloody encounters where both sides were subject to the ‘meat grinder’ of death unleashed across lines that barely moved for most of the war.  It was only towards the end, when extreme weariness and lack of supplies alongside desertion of most of the countries formerly supporting Austria-Hungary that Germany threw in the towel and were subject to the imposed peace terms of the allies in the treaty of Versailles.  This included the annexation of land, and specifically a piece of land called the Sudetenland with a majority German population, given to Czechoslovakia as it was then called.  This piece of land would be crucial in igniting the Second World War.

Germany almost won the war in 1917, when the Russians collapsed in the wake of the 1917 revolution and the US had not yet committed to fighting with the western allies.  Instead, they suffered defeat, surrender and loss of territory to cap a bitterness and despair at the massive loss of life and devastation of their economy.

It was from this deep-seated bitterness and defeat that Hitler wrote his manifesto, ‘Mein Kampf’.  This book played cleverly to the wounded and bitter psyche of the German people over the next few years and coupled with the devastated economy from the war, he was able to command enough support not only to become the leader of the country, but to introduce a brand of fascism that derived from the sense of victimhood and the brooding Xenophobia of the day.  Hitler’s first act of war in 1939, only 21 years after the treaty of Versailles, was to invade the very Sudetenland that had been given to Czechoslovakia and the rest, as they say, is history.

All this historic preamble is given to emphasize a fascinating lesson about war.  First of all, the numbers.  Around 15 million died in WW1, around 70 million in WW2.  In other words, WW2 wiped out the equivalent of more than the current population of the entire United Kingdom in 6 years.  I don’t think anyone can even comprehend what this really means in human terms, suffering and the impact on everyone who lost family and close friends.  It is highly likely the second war would never have occurred had the first not taken place.  AND the first occurred as a direct result of the assassination of an heir to a throne of a country that no longer exists.  It is fairly safe to say that that one royal murder triggered a chain reaction that cost 85 million lives.  Could this have been avoided?  Undoubtedly.  How would that have been achieved?  Instead of retaliation against the Serbs, was it not enough that the 19 year old gunman was tried and convicted of the murder.  We cannot predict what might have happened, but we should at least ponder the possibilities.  Perhaps another pretext would have presented itself.  But 20th century history suggests that pacifism in the face of provocation might just have saved the unimaginable impact of 85 million deaths.  It should, at least, cause us pause to think whenever war rears its devastating head!

Topical Tuesday – Hey Jesus, I’m Packing!

‘Hey Jesus, I’m packing…if anyone even attempts to threaten you, I’ve got a concealed weapon, and I’ll take care of them for you!’.  Yep, sound like something you might hear had Jesus carried out his emmanuel excursion in the 21st century in the US?  Not so much!  And yet, I am stunned on regular basis by the adopted beliefs of those who claim to represent said Jesus in our modern world.  And its not just gun ownership, prosecuting wars in far-flung territories, but the support of neoliberal trickle down economics and the increasing revelation of inherent discrimination that many followers adhere to as their political creed.  I understand that the Republican party secured a huge tranche of voting power by disingenuously pedaling support for moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, but the wholesale adoption of some of the above mentioned positions just baffles the heck out of me.  And now….Trump!

The reason I struggle so much with the current ‘Christian politics’ stems from my own extensive study of the very finite and limited evidence we have pertaining to what Jesus actually stood for in the four accounts of his life, stories and interaction with his contemporaries.  I hear many so called ‘believers’ have proclaimed themselves firmly behind the extraordinary candidacy of the Republican presidential nominee.  This man is a self-proclaimed advocate of racism, bigotry and mysogyny, quite apart from his continual propensity to lie and bend the truth or simply insult anyone who does not conform to his worldview.  But he is simply a rather embarrassing extension to a politer form of political creed that has subsumed the belief system of those who call themselves followers of Christ.

My reading of the contemporary accounts tells a very different story, and I am purposely not going to quote snippets out of context, but paint a picture that seems at odds with these conventional views.  I see a caring, accepting leader who eschews any form of discrimination unless provoked by those who pedal such judgements, such as the religious leaders of his day.  I witness a falsely accused victim of injustice who rebukes his own follower for an act of violence to his captors and an act of healing to right the wrong done.  The emphasis he consistently demonstrates on caring for the downtrodden, the sick and the rejected alongside his clear statements on feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and visiting the prisoner seem to emanate much more from a ‘liberal’ playbook rather than the increasing emphasis on prosperity for the faithful dominating current theologies.  Jesus was specifically a friend to the tax collectors, and though he encouraged the redemption of illegal corrupt tax collection, he seemed to advocate supporting even unjust government in his statement on ‘rendering to Caesar’.

Taking a closer look at his attitude to war and violence, the phrases ‘love your enemy’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ bear little resemblance to the support for the waging of proxy wars around the world and a tacit proclamation of revenge for what is unhelpfully billed as religious terrorism.  On a more personal level, the idea of carrying a weapon capable of killing another human being because that would be my solution to any threat of attack or property violation is simply untenable.  I realize that I have been brought up in a country where firearms are simply not freely available and the local police do not even carry guns, but given that my faith insists I do not fear death, and personal property is more likely to be a hindrance to purity, why would I even consider carrying a gun.

In the end, the example of Jesus may be just a little too radical for most of us.  But didn’t Jesus meekly submit to a violent and unjust death without lifting a finger to stop the injustice?  Did he not encourage his followers to do the same?  History tells us that all but one of his original students suffered similar ends, and I am assuming none of them was carrying a concealed weapon, let alone used one.  My overriding impression of early Christianity is one of inclusion, forgiveness, acceptance of all religions, genders and backgrounds.  It focused on attention to the poor and downtrodden and paid little mind to personal gain and comfort.  There was certainly no room for discrimination, revenge, protectionism, nationalism or personal prosperity.  But somehow, that seems to be the order of the day.  The support evidently available to the Republican presidential candidate from Christian quarters is a very disturbing extension of a prevailing theology which I trust will be soundly defeated in the days to come.  And no, I am no fan of the other candidate, but I long for a return to beliefs that more soundly echo the Jesus of the Bible.

Topical Tuesday – Authenticity

I hear it a lot these days, that desire for the authentic, whether it be the local restaurant, the hope for a different kind of politician or simply a way of life.  I think it comes from the disturbing legacy of years when what is spoken bears no relation to actuality.  We are bombarded by soundbites seeking to gain our approval or Facebook ‘like’ but faced with a reality that lets us down at every turn.  Recent events in my country of birth, where the momentous decision to leave the EU was effected by a simple majority were beleaguered by campaigns on both sides full of  misrepresentation.  It now transpires that much was entirely inauthentic in substance, especially from those who advocated leave.

In the US we have seen the rise of Trump and a surprising surge of support for the unconventional champion of the downtrodden in Bernie Sanders.  Although Mr Sanders was unable to gain the presidential nomination, we now discover he was hampered by the Democratic establishment skewing the support of the party towards his opponent.  Despite this, his revolution has attracted the support of millions of Americans looking for that elusive ‘authentic’ politician.  You may be surprised to hear me say this, but Messrs Trump and Sanders have a lot in common.  Though representing 2 very different constituencies, what they have sought to do is appeal to the disillusioned with a message that cuts to the heart of their supporters’ fears and disenchantment.

Those who have thrown their considerable support behind Mr Trump are fed up with the established Republican cadre and rally to his entirely authentic voicing of their own thoughts and leanings.  Sadly, there are many people fearful of the ‘other’ be it the muslim immigrant who poses an existential terror threat or the immigrant from the south who comes to steal their living.  Something resonates in the anti-establishment railings and bombastic confidence that he can and will do things differently simply because he is not an established politician.  From a completely different perspective, Mr Sanders appeals to those who feel threatened BECAUSE they are ‘other’.  They are looking for someone who will genuinely fight for them, protect them from the elite power brokers who seem to have the establishment politicians in their pockets.  They are fed up with being fobbed off as their net worth and standing falls in the wake of powerful oligarchs taking and controlling more and more of the available wealth.  The call to do something about bankers responsible for almost destroying the world economy or the oil companies destroying the environment is highly attractive to those who feel without any power of influence.

Personally, I am also attracted to what I feel to be authentic, but as I mused on the subject, I began to feel deeply challenged.  You see, the thing is, we are relying on someone else to wave their authentic magic wand and deal with the injustice, the fear or the dissatisfaction we feel with the way things are.  But if I want authentic, then what am I doing to achieve it in my own life, relationships, work and environment.  If I really don’t want the environment to be destroyed, am I making appropriate choices in what I drive, how I manage my consumption, how I dispose of my waste etc.  If I wish there were more ‘authentic’ natural places to eat then am I making the extra effort to support those who purvey such fair?  If I disapprove of the way workers are treated in garment factories in Bangladesh, do I purposely seek out clothes that are not manufactured in such places?  Do I bother to withdraw my relatively small amount of wealth from the institutions that have proven financial mismanagement and deposit them with those who demonstrate more honesty in their dealings?

In the end, if we seek authenticity, then I feel we should first seek it in our own lives rather than looking for someone else to do it for us.  If I want to see change in the world around me, the people I have a relationship with, the church I belong too, the neighborhood I live in, then it starts with me.  Am I really serious about living an authentic life.  In other words, am I willing to make the sacrifice necessary to line up what I really believe with the way in which I live my life.  Big question, big challenge!

 

Topical Tuesday – Post Truth

Ok, you don’t have to agree with a word I say, nor believe what I write as fact.  Please do your own research and make sure you do everything you can to verify anything that is presented to you as fact.  Why?  Because we live in what has been topically coined as the ‘post truth’ era.  Over the last few weeks, as my country of birth has been dragged through an unnecessary and ill-conceived referendum (opinion), I have witnessed ‘facts’ from official sources that would have caused serious problems of balance for Pinocchio.  Not consigned only to one side of the argument, it seems that the Leave campaign wins first prize for the speed with which its claims were revised.  The very campaign bus that toured the country and touted a 350 million pound windfall for the NHS on leaving the EU was rapidly re-painted, and leading Brexiteers were quick to point out that these funds would not be available after all.  Amongst other major statements, the Leave team also promised a reduction in immigration numbers.  This was, once again, hastily denied after the vote was in.

I do not wish to dwell on the rather dubious methods used to persuade an Exit vote in the referendum, as this is simply a symptom of the culture we now inhabit in our increasingly information-rich connected world.  Fast on the heels of the EU referendum the Chilcot report was published after 7 years of research into Britain’s participation in the second Iraq war.  Yet again, we are now, only years later, learning the truth about WMDs in Iraq!

However, this has become the norm and it is seriously exacerbated by media outlets determined to sell their particular agendas.  Only recently has the Sun newspaper reluctantly apologized for its appalling accusations against fans of Liverpool football club for the disaster at Hillsborough 27 years ago.  The other day, I was trawling through cat videos and family barbecues on Facebook interspersed with serious articles on current events that could have passed for sketches from the Monty Python archives.

I read that vast areas of London are living under Sharia law, that crime has escalated following stricter gun laws in Australia.  A few years ago, I had to provide an answer to many who questioned me on Britain’s health service ‘Death Camps’ as portrayed by a certain vice presidential candidate from Alaska.  Now we are told that immigrants are responsible for the high levels of crime in the UK, and yet independent statistics point to the opposite being true.  What makes matters worse, is the fashionable revision of history that seeks to paper over the cracks of untruth and present a pristine new version of events.  We now hear that the EU referendum is a resounding mandate from the people.  We are told over and over by the gun lobby that more guns would prevent mass shootings in the US.  So, how, I wonder, does this claim stack up against reality when over 100 armed policemen were unable to stop one lone gunman in Dallas from his bloody rampage?

Our problem has only been magnified by the sheer weight of information available and the somewhat sinister way in which it is now presented, particularly on social media.  A vast majority of our population now use Facebook as a source of streaming information.  Some of it is harmless and boring.  But when it comes to current affairs and news items, Facebook uses an algorithm to place items it believes are of interest to you, or support your point of view in order to garner more attention from you and thus more exposure to its revenue source; advertising.  And so, the news stream is delivered in a censored format and then from sources that vary hugely in reliability.  Unfortunately, with such a weight of information at our disposal, we have little time to verify the truth of it all.  The edifice of truth we build is often created on a false foundation, the walls are constructed from sources that say what we want to hear and back up our stance or position, cemented together by ‘facts’ and ‘figures’ that often bear no relation to the truth.  I admit, this has been a problem for much longer than this generation.  Most faiths have cherry picked writings from holy books to support their doctrinal position for centuries.  However, these days, we seem beset by partisan issues at every turn and the voice of reason and honest truth has been lost to ever more strident factions, whose positions are further and further removed from honest assessment and a humble willingness to hear the truth.  I urge myself and all who care about this ‘post truth’ world to value that which is proven and be ever questioning of the source of our information.

Sunday Sermon – Embracing Diversity

Well, it seemed like an apposite time to address something that has lately been on my mind, but now writ large with the recent EU referendum result.  Most of you reading this will know I voted for the UK to remain in the EU and am naturally disappointed with the outcome of June 23rd.  There can be no doubt that fear connected to continue immigration, and amongst extremists, the rise of nationalism and xenophobia was behind some of the vote for leaving the EU.  Whilst there seem to be many who had valid reasons for wanting to leave the European project, the resultant vote has clearly given validation to racism and extreme expressions of patriotism, even if this was never the intent.

Reading the accounts of Jesus and his attitude towards other races or religious creeds has always led me to follow an inclusive and non-nationalistic approach to my own accident of birth and upbringing.  I have never advocated the relinquishing of my unique birth heritage and the quirky uniqueness that comes with being British, but it has always seemed to me that more extreme patriotism coupled with any sense of superiority leads to division and conflict.  Sadly, this has meant substantial loss of human life over the centuries.  It is all the more remarkable that over 2,000 years ago, Jesus demonstrated an inclusiveness and acceptance towards those of other nationalities or religious persuasions.  What is even more remarkable is that this inclusiveness went well beyond tolerance and demonstrated an active engagement.

Probably the most detailed account of the attitude of Jesus can be found in John’s record of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  It is important to recognize the cultural significance of this story, given the social mores of the time.  Not only was it unheard of for a man to spend time treating a woman as an equal, but the Samaritans were a much despised tribe.  It was common practice for contemporary Jews traveling between Judea and Galilee to make a huge detour across the Jordan river in order to avoid being contaminated by traversing Samaria.  They considered themselves superior and pure compared with their Samaritan neighbors.  Jesus, however, used a Samaritan as an example of a good neighbor and his care for the downtrodden in his parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’.  In his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, he demonstrated real engagement through intimate knowledge of her life.  He offered her nothing less than what he brought to his own people despite her heritage and revealed that worship being based either in Samaria or in Jerusalem would become irrelevant in this new era of life he was offering.

The other notable and revolutionary attitude towards those outside his own national or religious background was displayed towards the Romans.  History tells us that the Romans were violently oppressive towards the Jews in Israel, coupled with a political stranglehold they exerted through the corrupt Jewish rulers, Herod the Great and Herod Antipas being the best known.  Surprisingly, Jesus demonstrated love and concern for those representing the oppressor.  One story has Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion.  There was also a law in place that allowed a Roman soldier to force local inhabitants to carry their equipment.  Jesus encouraged his followers to ‘go the second mile’ and carry it twice as far.  Jesus was also attributed with strong words regarding loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, something that seems a far cry from the use of force to impose our will either locally or internationally.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something wonderful in the cultural diversity represented across the globe and I am not advocating homogeneity.  In these fractious days of mistrust and fear, I believe we need to exercise the embracing and engaging attitude of Jesus towards our fellow citizens of the world.  As we offer love, life and acceptance instead of judgement, rejection and exclusion, we remove prejudice and allow enjoyment of our differences and the possibility of being heard for the good we have to offer.  I’ll leave you with an interesting conundrum.  Given that most of the Christian world hold fast to what the Catholic church term ‘The Immaculate Conception’, is it possible that Jesus was, in fact, of no biological national lineage.  He certainly did not have a Jewish biological father, and we have no clear indication of how much, if any, his mother’s genes played a part.  However, it is just possible that Jesus was himself free of any earthly barriers but instead began the lineage that we might call ‘The Kingdom of God’.  If so, no wonder those national and racial barriers did not figure in the way he behaved.  The good news he offered was indeed totally unencumbered by any earthly barrier!

Topical Tuesday – Should I Stay or Should I Go!

So here I am in England just a couple of days before the big referendum that will determine whether we stay in the European Union.  The title of today’s blog is taken from the song by the Clash and is used by the BBC as a somewhat tongue in cheek intro to their referendum coverage.  Unfortunately, nothing about this critical decision is ‘tongue in cheek’ as the ramifications of the decision about to be made by the citizens of the United Kingdom could have far reaching consequences.  Severing ties with the Union may extend well beyond the economy and result in increased pressure for Scottish independence or even lead to further desertions and the eventual break up of the European Union itself.

So why does it matter?  Didn’t we exist for hundreds of years prior to the inception of the European project?  In fact, one of the most compelling features of the years since the end of the Second World War is the absence of conflict initiated between any of the European nations.  Between the mid 19th Century and the end of the Second World War there were more than 30 wars involving more than one European nation.  Since that time, there have been no military conflicts between European nations in an unprecedented era of peace.  One of the compelling reasons behind the push for greater unity was the very need to avoid the devastating destruction of human life caused by the two world wars originating in Europe during the 20th century.

Of course, it is sometimes hard to relate these noble ideals with current realities in a Europe with its volatile economy and overbearing bureaucracy.  But, the underlying desire to work together and settle our differences across tables in Brussels instead of trenches in the Somme is far preferable to what went before.  Unfortunately, the debate in the UK has turned acrimonious and riddled with unreliable propaganda emanating from both Leave and Remain camps.  Focus has typically sought to appeal to the base instincts of the electorate; how much they stand to lose or gain, what they should fear instead of turning our attentions to the greater good and the health of the broader community.

For me, the issue is one of promoting unity, removing barriers and seeking to work together for the greater good and not any individual or nation’s self interest.  Projected onto the national level, I favor the softening of national boundaries and the encouragement of shared culture, without necessarily losing all the good things that make us unique.  Let’s face it though, the forces of nationalism were at the heart of many of the horrendous conflicts that have plagued the European scene over the last 200 years and before.  The rise in popularity of far right political groups fueled by terrorist acts and the fear of the foreigner has only added fuel to the argument that we are better on our own.  But at the heart of this exclusive nationalist agenda are undercurrents of racism and discrimination that are best left well in the past.

While there are many problems with the current political entity known as the European Union, it is inevitable that political union will engender compromise and not a small amount of grinning and bearing.  We will not always agree, and our disagreements may sometimes greatly inconvenience us as we struggle to find solutions for the many problems we face.  But we are better in than out, where we can at least influence the direction in which these nations seek to move.  We can even fight for the rights of our citizens where national interest needs to be preserved.  We cannot fight if we are not in the room.  I am saddened by the tone of the debate that has unfolded in my country of birth, and on Friday morning, there will be much healing needed as almost half those who voted will disagree with the result.  I hope the majority will vote to stay and clearly this is my preference, but I trust too, that it will herald a move towards greater acceptance, cooperation and tolerance as together we Europeans seek to set an example of the values that promote peace and unity across our borders.

Thought Provoking Thursday – An End To Partisan Politics

So, earlier this week, I was musing on the unusual partnership of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron and the newly elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.  The former leads the Conservative party, the latter a member of the opposition Labour party.  I am a firm believer in political engagement.  I believe we should all take an interest in what influences so much of our lives together in the communities and nations we inhabit.  Yes, I know, it can be so much less contentious to avoid the subject altogether, but whether we like it or not, the decisions, policies and laws passed by our elected officials have deeply significant impacts on how we get along.  What I continue to grow ever more disenchanted with, is the partisan system that has become ever more divisive and hostile, particularly in the US.

So what was the significance of the joint appearance of these two leaders from opposing parties in the UK?  For those who are not as aware of what is going on across the pond, on June 23rd, the UK will vote in a referendum to decide whether to leave the European Union (Brexit), or to stay as an active member (Remain).  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, is campaigning for ‘Remain’ even as many of his senior colleagues represent ‘Brexit’.  One of the main reasons for the Labour Mayor of London to appear by the Conservative PM’s side was to demonstrate unity on the issue as the recently elected Mayor is also supportive of the ‘Remain’ camp.  Now the cynics amongst us can claim that this photo opportunity merely served the political expedients of both parties.  Nevertheless, the sight of key leaders from opposing political parties standing together and agreeing on what is best for the country provoked some serious thinking on my part.

How would it be partisan ideologies were subservient to authentic expression of views most closely aligned with those who were responsible for putting a politician in their position of influence.  Both the Mayor and the PM made their positions clear on this vital issue of membership of the European Union before they were elected, and so remain true to their electorate regardless of the fact that members of the opposition party agree with them.  Heaven forbid that Republican members of Congress would actually agree with anything put forward by a Democratic President.  It almost seems that being contrary and partisan is the end goal, rather than a sensible debate on the issues allowing a free vote unhindered by the party whip.

There are so many examples of issues that should transcend party lines such as gun control, where a large majority of the voting public voiced support for greater regulation.  In this instance, the partisan trenches were dug and instead of sensible debate, the grenades were lobbed and the trenches remained with little movement either way.  I understand the rationale dictating the formation of political parties, where a broad base of ideology allows some clarification on basic economic and social policies.  But, what would it take to allow a much needed relaxation of hostilities and the opportunity for consensus to be built on honest open debate and the crossing of entrenched partisan battle lines where appropriate.

It is ironic that the greatest divisions over the European Union in the UK are currently found within the Conservative party, only because the PM gave the green light for members of parliament to freely express their own convictions.  Much of this division has become unnecessarily personal and contentious, but it highlights a mode of operating that, I believe, would create a wholly different way to do politics.  Imagine a world where partisan ideology was subservient to representing the electorate both locally and nationally.  Picture the current US president standing on the White House steps together with the Republican leader of the house jointly supporting the ‘Right thing to do’.  Sadly, the partisan divide reaches deeply into the psyche of the public at large, and unless leadership is willing to demonstrate a kinder disposition towards the supposed enemy, our society will become even more divided at the grass roots level.  Personally, I refuse to be button holed into supporting any one political party, as I see merits on different issues from all sides of the debate.  Is it not possible that we can abandon our own partisan intransigence and support a better world for our families and communities on the issues themselves.  Idealistic maybe, but something to think about!