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!

Thought Provoking Thursday – In Who We Trust

So, I live in a country where there is much disillusionment with government, aversion to politics and the unthinkable reality that the best candidate put forward by the Republicans is at least borderline racist, misogynist, rude and grandly egotistical.  How did we arrive at this state of affairs in a country that professes a large population of those who ‘follow Jesus’?  In some ways, I get it.  The level of mistrust towards elected officials, an extreme aversion to being told what to do by central administration and confrontational bi-partisan bickering is all too understandable.  Into the vacuum on both sides of the divide step Mr Trump and Mr Sanders.

But, it occurs to me that we might have misplaced our fears for our freedoms and aversion to being controlled in the wrong direction.  Don’t get me wrong, there is little on either side of the current political spectrum to admire.  Even the most ardent supporter would doubtless admit the current President has failed to deliver on the heady promises of ‘Yes We Can’ that so inspired the groundswell behind his election.  The irrational and obstructive behaviour of a Republican congress seems to have been based predominantly on an emotional loathing towards the first African American POTUS.  Carried by the conservative media, we have been subject to the irrational claims that Mr Obama is not a citizen of the US, is a muslim, a communist and dare I say it, is a person of colour?

So, I get why the general population has had it up to here!  But for those who profess a faith in Jesus, the reconciler, an advocate for peace, the despiser of none and one who seemed to have no discriminatory bone in his body (Read the account of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), I wonder if we have drifted far from the core beliefs of our creed.  First of all, our aversion to government involvement in our lives should be tempered by Jesus’ own lack of aversion.  At no time did he express any revolutionary thoughts towards the clearly corrupt and controlling government of the time.  Indeed, the few references we can find to his attitude seem to indicate quite the opposite.  When it came to taxes collected on behalf of the Roman oppressors, he seemed to encourage ‘giving to Caesar what is due to Caesar.’  Perhaps even more radical, he advocated carrying the Roman soldiers’ burden not just the statutory one mile, but to go the second mile.  There were those amongst his disciples who must have wondered at his lack of zeal for uprising against the current oppressive regime, perhaps this was at the heart of Judas’ disillusionment.

Today, we regard any interference by the government as a blanket ‘bad thing’ and a solid tranche of US Christians have gladly aligned themselves with the ‘tea party’ movement and latterly, Mr Trump’s seeming independence from the strictures of central government.  Perhaps our fear is focused in the wrong direction?  We live in an age where real control seems to have been ceded to those with financial power and our freedoms are not so much threatened by greater central regulation, but by those who seek to control more of the world’s wealth and so our own lives.  The most worrying trend concerning our elected officials is the extent to which they are in thrall to the oligarchy that really holds the strings of power.  Indeed, it might well be the lack of regulation and the impotence of any recent government not to reign in this stranglehold on our freedoms that should be our biggest complaint.

When the banks corruptly gambled with the world’s economy, it was the man in the street who lost his job and his house, not the financial leaders, all of whom not only escaped without punishment, but were bailed out by the governments of the day.  When a majority of the population knows that sensible gun regulation would prevent at least some of the tragic deaths caused by firearms, it was the power of the NRA that left the government powerless to act on their behalf.  Despite the overwhelming evidence to suggest that fossil fuels is destroying the environment, the pressure to find alternatives has been painfully slow on the back of the powerful oil lobby.  As for the proliferation of armed conflicts in the world, one can only imagine the benefits to the powerful defense industry.  These are just a few examples of organizations that seem to have the real stranglehold on the lives of the general population.  It seems to me that it is time for those citizens, from whichever part of the political spectrum they belong, to take back their own government and like Wilberforce, Luther King and many others, allow legislative power to be used for the promotion of peace, prosperity and protection for the majority and no longer pander to the whims of the small minority.

Topical Tuesday – Bathroom Rights

I felt the need to weigh in on this controversial subject as soon as I heard about the new laws passed in North Carolina’s House Bill 2.  For those of you, perhaps living in a different part of the world, who have missed the furore arising from this legislation, let me explain.  North Carolina’s legislature took  it upon themselves to pass a law making it mandatory for its citizens only to use public bathrooms designated for their anatomical gender of birth.  The implication of this ruling was clearly designed to target transgender people wishing to use a bathroom associated with the gender with which they most strongly identify.  My immediate reaction to this development was to recall the discriminatory bathrooms of the apartheid era in South Africa, which I witnessed first hand on visits in the 80’s.  The exclusion of people of color from ‘white only’ bathrooms was apparently a feature of the deep south in the US not so many decades ago.  For the record, it is important to point out here that the law only applies to state owned bathrooms and not public bathrooms associated with private businesses.

But, to be fair, what were the salient reasons for passing such a law, and do they stand up to scrutiny?  Or is there another agenda at work here, and if so, what is it?  From all the research I have been able to do on what has become a ‘hot topic’ in the news feeds, it seems the predominant reason for this bill, presented by those in favor, is the protection of the general public from sexual predators and perverts able to operate in an inappropriate environment, i.e. a bathroom reserved for the ‘opposite sex’.  The other reason seems to revolve around a socially conservative agenda adopting a ‘bunker’ mentality when it comes to recognizing the shift in definition of gender roles.  As one commentator observed, ‘the train has already left the station’, and North Carolina’s stance simply highlights a rather old fashioned clinging to ‘Christian’ morals and social mores that are clearly not shared by a majority of the population of the US.

First of all, the argument that preserving birth sex only bathrooms provides protection against the actions of sexual predators seems, on the face of it, an admirable measure.  However, on further reflection, it seems to me that the issue we are dealing with here is the act of sexual predation, whether male or female and involving either gender.  What is to stop a man preying on young boys or indeed a woman doing the same with her own sex?  I am as keen as anyone to see the devastating effects of such abuse diminished, and the law, medical profession, social workers etc., who deal with such abuse should receive maximum support for anything that will help in this respect.  However, it seems the incidence of transgender people being involved in such activities is virtually zero, and paradoxically,  it is the transgender community who face far more abuse and even violent discrimination rather than the other way round.

Whilst I respect the social conservative fear of an erosion of so called ‘moral values’, the concern I have over this stance is this recurring theme of control over those who don’t agree or conform to their version of human behaviour.  I have seen the same attitude expressed towards the gay community with the desire to use legislation to prevent gay marriage.  I understand that some parents just don’t want to explain to their 7 year old daughter why a person with a beard is in the ladies bathroom.  But, whilst respecting those who wish to maintain more traditional values, there is no room for condemning or discriminating against those who choose otherwise.  And, we cannot bury our heads in the sand for ever.  Surely it would be better to explain to those who are growing up what the world really looks like and how a culture of tolerance and acceptance would go far in enhancing the world they are likely to grow up in.  I might not understand why someone chooses to reject their anatomical birth gender and prefer to associate with the opposite sex, but the fact is, this is not as rare as many might think.  It is also a dangerous throw back to darker days of discrimination, when any minority gender, race, religion or sexual persuasion are forced to conform to the wishes of those who secretly disapprove and seek to control them through force of targeted legislation.