Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sandy is punishment for gays

I have seen this from a few people, the argument that hurricane Sandy is a punishment on the US for allowing homosexuality. This is not uncommon - pretty much every natural disaster is taken as being punishment for some perceived sin of the nation. I would just dismiss this as certain fanatical Americans doing there thing, but it seems like it is worth a comment.

Firstly, there is the question of whether God punishes people in this sort of way. The answer, oddly, is yes, there is some significant evidence for natural events being seen as divine punishment, and - significantly - this being done to entire populations. Jericho and Sodom and Gomorrah being the ones that come to mind. Whether it is "natural events seen as divine judgement" or "God punishing a group of people" is a moot point, as they are equivalent. All of the writing we have is post-event interpretation, so it is how the events were seen afterwards.

The real problem I have with this approach is that, in the biblical writing, the punishment or devastation was clearly on a specific and small group of people - yes it was sometimes a "nation", but a nation of hundreds of thousands, not millions, meaning that the impact would him all of them. Hurricane Sandy seems to be affecting a small group of Americans - some 60M is 10% of the population - and they are fairly random. Surely, if God wanted to make a point about homosexuality, hitting Brighton in the UK would be a more obvious target. Or maybe California. The "choice" of location seems to be rather random, and so the "interpretation" of the punishment relies on other individuals, who will, of course, make it about their particular bug-bear.

The other problem I have is that, if God wanted to make a point to America through this storm, surely it is about their financial arrogance (something that most of the West is guilty of, so I am not singling out the US). The real issue is that I can see the West does stand deserving the judgement of God - we have abused, exploited and killed across the world, and so often done this in the name of God. I have no question that we deserve punishment, although not for the trivial matters that some people claim. I also do not think that the East Coast of the US is an obvious target - the financial collapse is probably more of a punishment or judgement.

If we want to see Sandy as a punishment, maybe it is for out damage to the climate. We don't need to invoke God punishing anyone, as the hurricane might well be partly enhanced by the climate damage we have done. Of course, those claiming Sandy is Gods punishment seem not to want to explain it as punishment for financial arrogance and/or climate change, because that would impact on their lifestyles and beliefs. And Gods judgement would not be on them, surely?

For now, however, my main response to Sandy is prayer for all of those affected, those who have lost homes, family, lives (in the Carribean already - it is not just about the US), and those who will.

-does god punish like this?
-punishing random group of people - why not Brighton
-punishment for financial arrogance

Saturday, 27 October 2012


I don't know what it is about this time of year, but there are a combination of contraversial events that happen around now. So I thought I might address them.

The first two have a transatlantic divide, although I think it is fair to say that this division is not rigid. There are people on both sides with all views, but it serves as a convenient shorthand.

Firstly, we have Halloween. In the UK, many Christian groups are strongly opposed to this, because it is a celebration of evil, of the whole gamut of the demonic. This has some truth behind it - the origins of "All Hallows Eve" are in the ascendency of the evil, as their "last stand" before All Saints Day, and they are defeated. To be honest, in the way it is celebrated in the UK, it tends to be rather focussing on the evil side of this.

In the US, it is treated as a time of fun and play, and some Americans find the horror in the UK at this event to be rather over the top. Personally, I find it a rather disturbing time, not necessarily because of the overtones, but because of the darkening nights, the shorter days, the oppressive season, and this is emphasised in the Halloween celebrations.

Just a few days after that, in the UK we have Bonfire night. And some of the US response here comes as "What! You are celebrating burning a Catholic? How grotesque". Which is also true, but it is a distinctly British celebration. It is a gruesome celebration, but very few people actually treat it as an anti-catholic celebration. And, of course, the real origins are in Samhain, the Celtic pagan celebration of the end of harvest, and the start of Winter.

This is also linked in with Halloween, of course, and we end up with some distinct celebrations with close connections, and some strange additional baggage. But at core, we are declaring that the Summer, the growing season is at an end, and the Winter is arriving. We are accepting that life has its cycles, life and death, birth and growth and ending. That is what we celebrate.

And then, shortly after, we have Remembrance day and Remembrance Sunday. Maybe the timing of this is not co-incidental, that the time we celebrate life and death, we also celebrate the ending of the war. But this year, more than any other year, I have seen a number of people questioning whether the poppy celebrations are a glorification of war, rather than a call for peace. It is a difficult balance, and I have always struggled with it, and don't like Remembrance services.

Of course, nobody would admit to glorifying war. the problem is that the way Remembrance is done - and other aspects of the work of the armed services - can be seen to be raising soldiers to being saints. Any suggestion of criticising them is treated with shock, because these people put their lives on the line - and many die - for "our country". The BBC insists (I gather) that their presenters are all wearing poppies through the season. It is true that the military do go into difficult and dangerous places, and do important work that often risks and takes their lives. What is more, historically, the two world wars cost a huge number of lives. Many of them wasted by stupidity, I should point out.

I am aware of the white "peace" poppies, and have considered getting one at times. However, they are often rather aggressive (oddly enough), and I have no desire to offend or upset people for whom Remembrance is significant, and a part of their healing process. In the end, maybe we should look at an "ending" - a focus on the fact that war is crap, killing and dying is bad, and we should work towards ending war and fighting. That needs a radical change in the attitudes from the top, a change to say we should talk, we should accept difference. This needs to apply globally, that everyone - whatever their faith, belief or principles of leadership - should work for peace in their countries, and across the world.

How? I don't have those sort of answers, but an attitude change to say "live and let live", rather than "If we don't like them, lets threaten". There needs to be a very radical change to everyones approach, that does not support a "macho" sabre-rattling approach to diplomacy, to seeking for a secure world. That should be the message for Remembrance. This year and always.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cars, roads etc

I have a constant dilemma. I am a member of the Green Party, because I support their policies, and I believe that they offer an approach to politics that is different from the main parties, and we are definitively in need of some radically different approaches.

However, I think there is a real challenge with regards transport policy - and this is an example of a problem that is far more endemic in our society. It is not that I disagree with the green approach, just that there are bigger problems.

The core difficulty is that we have created a society that depends on transport. We live in one place and, very often, work somewhere else. Therefore we need to travel to somewhere else, usually on a daily basis, but sometimes on a weekly or longer. In particular, around London, millions of people live in the suburbs and the home counties, commuting into London each day - or to other places around London. This makes for a very substantial transportation problem, on a daily basis, that is not getting any better.

Of course, the answers normally come that people should find work nearer home, or live nearer their work. This is not always possible. For example, I more around where I am working, so I cannot relocate every few months depending on the latest assignment. It is also a problem that much of the work is in places that I cannot afford to live - Spitalfields, for example, or Chelsea. What is more, the need for flexible workers in a very difficult economic time means that I am not alone in this, by any means.

I cannot always find work "near to where I live". I would very much like to, but this assumes a ready availability of specialist work, something that is most certainly not the case. As a society, we actually don't seem to want this, because we have for decades tried to separate our living areas from our working areas.

I think there is another approach that we need to take - actually, two areas that we need to progress before we can make a real difference. The first is to enable and allow more people to work from home, or remotely, by properly utilising the internet and the facilities that we have available today.From a technological perspective, very many people could work remotely today, if companies were prepared to let them, and the technology infrastructure was completely up for it - which means good, high-speed, broadband access far more widespread.

The other area we need to progress is the transport infrastructure across the country. This includes roads, railways, buses, trams, cable cars, boats, and whatever else. The progress needed is to integrate this, make the pricing far more sensible, and make sure that people who need to travel can do so using public transport where possible, but also a combination of car and train, or bus, or whatever. I think more companies would be happy to let employees work remotely, if their manager could, easily, visit and check up on them as needed, if they were able to get into a central office when required.

Unfortunately, the current approach to green transport seems to be making cars more expensive. This doesn't work - especially not as public transport is still more expensive than cars for 2 or 3 people. It would make sense to make cars more expensive, if the other approaches above were implemented first. As it is, raising the cost of motoring just drives up inflation.

Ah, so what about the HS2 line - the  proposed new train link from Euston to Birmingham? Surely, this is a good idea, then? And Even Davis, in his "Made in Britain" series, made a very good argument for supporting this. While it may be a good idea for a new line - although I am not entirely sure this one is needed, rather than improvements to the existing line - the environmental damage this will cause, and the devastation that this will cause to many places along the route weigh against the proposal. Maybe it should be put underground? Yes, that is far more expensive, but one argument for supporting it is the economic benefits. Or put proper investment into the existing line.

Cars are evil. But we need to change our society structures, not just ban cars, or make them too expensive. And we need firstly to invest in the existing networks, not just assume we have to build new ones. We need proper improvements to existing systems, not just new services for specific journeys.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Mary and Martha

I am watching a documentary about an extraordinary young girl called Martha Paine. You may remember her, because she hit the headlines a few months ago because her blog get her into trouble. She started her blog talking about her school dinners http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/, but was sometimes critical of the quantity and quality of the food. The local authority banned her from taking photographs in the dining hall.

This provoked an outrage, not least because she was only being honest about the meals that she had. Sometimes, she would be positive about them. The coverage - helped by social media - meant that she had thousands of hits on her blog, but it did not stop there, because she had realised that her school meal problems were nothing compared to other peoples.

She had set up a JustGiving page to help a local charity called Marys Meals. This was a charity with a very simple aim, which was to provide children who go to school in Malawi with a meal, which was often the only meal they would get in the day. It was an incentive to encourage them into school, which was the best way to get them out of the poverty trap. Martha had hoped to raise something like £2000 for them, if people would be kind enough to give, her target was £7000. It seemed like a positive thing to do to help others.

The publicity for her blog caused donations through the site to rocket. It seemed that people heard of Marthas problems, and supported her by giving money to Marys meals. Giving to the sum of nearly £120K. She has just returned from Malawi after seeing some of the work that this money has done.

What I find interesting is the names here, and the inverse relationship to their biblical namesakes. In the Bible, Martha and Mary are sisters, Martha being a busy housewife while Mary was sitting listening to Jesus. In the same sort of way, it seems to me that Martha Paine listens to comments, problems, issues, and discusses them, while Marys Meals does something practical without any complexity, philosophy or strings.

The thing is, they need each other. Marys need Marthas, and Marthas need Marys. This particular example just goes to show what can be achieved when they work together.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Noonday Demon

As a change from normal, this post is going to be a review and assessment of "The Noonday Demon", by Andrew Solomon, which is one of the most significant assessments of depression, from someone who has - and continues to - experience it

Overall, the book is 450 pages long, and the pages have a lot of words on them. What is more, the words are not quick and easy. It is a difficult book to read, not least because the subject matter is very difficult and challenging. He tells some of his own story, his own depressive breakdowns. He did not have an easy time of it. It is an interesting insight into what depression feels like, for those who have not experienced it.

However, this is not, to my mind, the most important or significant aspect of the book. Rather, he then explores what depression means and implies in modern (American) Society. As a Brit, there are some times when the discussion is not completely relevant, but interesting nonetheless. He covers a number of topics: treatments;demographics;addiction; suicide;history;poverty;politics and evolution. He finishes with an interesting chapter on hope, which I will return to later.

The treatments mainly cover the various medications, and their history and development. While interesting, the work is becoming dated (the book was published in 2002), and most of this data updated is available in the internet. However he does cover ECT, a treatment that it would appear is more common in the US than in Europe. The European model is far more based on medications and talking therapies, whereas the US model was, it would appear, differently structured. Of course, this may have all changed.

The demographics is an interesting section. What becomes clear is that the big-scale statistics indicating that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will suffer from depression at some time in their life is reflected across most sub-groups, although there are some interesting and important differences. What becomes clear is that there are no groups who are immune, there is no-one who can claim that they could never suffer. One interesting population is the Innuit, who have an 80% change overall of suffering, which may reflect a cultural difference, but is also very sobering reading. We also find in the poverty section that being poor does seem to be a stronger indicator for depression, especially unreported depression. Once again, the differences between the US and the UK become significant - and should make another good reason for keeping and supporting the NHS - the cost in the US of people who cannot afford to be treated is probably very significant, although it is incredibly difficult to quantify.

The section on addiction is quite sobering reading. What is clear is that addiction can easily hide depression, sometimes, it would seem, serving to hide it completely, and the depression only becomes an issue if the person breaks their addiction - at which point the depression that may have been a driver for their addiction may overwhelm them. It is, apparently, not uncommon for recovering addicts to take their own life, which may be related to a depressive breakdown because they are no longer handling it through their addiction. The suicide section is also a challenging read, and one of the best assessments of suicidal feelings that I have read. The psychology of suicide is very complex, and exceptionally difficult to analyse, not least because one cannot do post-event analysis.

The historical analysis is very useful from a church perspective, because there are some churches today that are still reflecting the position that the church held on depression and suicide from centuries ago. The fear of mental illness historically - both in the church and in society - is disturbing reading, but also shows that untreated depression (and other mental illness) has been an aspect of society for thousands of years. What is more, the indications are that most mental illness does not get better if untreated, but may be hidden because the stigma attached to mental illness is substantial.

This stigma is still significant, even though it rarely results in a lynch mob or stoning today, and this does make the politics of managing mental illness a challenge. Once again, the book addresses the US situation, but the challenges of providing the support and resources to the mentally ill is the same wherever you are. This is especially the case for depressives, who are, by the nature of their illness, not liable to be motivated to action and to campaign over years for change. The real political problem is that resources for the mentally ill are not seen as contributing to the economy directly, although in truth, they do enable people to be productive. What is more, politicians are aware of the stigma of mental illness, and so are very unlikely to admit to it, meaning that there are very few active and experienced campaigners in the positions of power.

The discussion of evolution is addressing the question of why, from an evolutionary perspective, depression is still a significant part of our makeup. The conclusions reflect one of the core issues with treatment, that it is not clear what causes depression, or how it should be treated. The problems come because the factors that cause depression also seem to have other impacts, other effects, that might be positive. If he comes to any conclusions, it is that depression may be a result of the society we live in and the challenges of adapting to this society. It could, therefore, be argued that depression is a normal response to the society we live in, and those who do not suffer from depression are the ones who are deluded, the ones who do not see reality properly.

His final chapter on hope is a positive end to a difficult book. However, it also reflects some of my experiences, and may show a place for Christianity in treatment of depression in particular, and mental illness in general. Hope is critical to most illnesses, and hope is something that Christianity can provide. This is not to deny that sometimes Christians and the Church crush and destroy hope, but Christianity is about hope, it is about a belief that there is something more than the world we see around us. That is a really positive note to end the book on, which I was glad about.

Is this book worth a read? Well maybe, if you have the stamina and strength for it. It is not an easy book to read, but it does provide a vital insight into what depression actually means to the sufferer and to the society that we live in. Of course, realism does not make for gentle reading.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Jimmy Savile

Well I thought it is about time to discuss this, as it has been rumbling for a while now. I have changed my position on this as more of the stories have emerged.

I should point out that everything so far has been accusations. There is a need for investigation, to ascertain whether the accusations are actually true or not. This sounds like I am accusing the victims of lying. I am not - I just think that it only fair for everyone that the accusations are properly investigated, that the truth emerges and people are not condemned by accusation.

Let me clarify this. If I accuse you of something, that means nothing until it is properly explored and investigated, and the truth identified. Even if I get other people to support my accusations, they are still only claims until they have properly been assessed. The truth is important, whatever it is.

I was initially skeptical of the claims against Savile. To be fairer, I thought that it might have been more a case of star-struck young girls, and a hyper-star who didn't resist. We forget in this celebrity-cynical times exactly how big and powerful these people were at the time. That is not to excuse him, but to apply 21st century morality to the 1980s is wrong - people did things then that would be clearly considered unacceptable, but were considered part of life then. As an example, the sexual revolution was different before we became aware of AIDS, which changed attitudes. That doesn't mean that they were right, just that their ethical boundaries were different

What is more, and needs to be considered, is that Jimmy Savile did a lot of excellent charity work, raised a whole lot of money for Stoke Mandeville and other charities. He also raised the profile of celebrities doing charity work, and putting real effort in - not just random appearances at events, but running marathons, putting real effort into his fund raising. He raised millions that has been productively used in helping people.

However, that does not excuse him. Some faiths work with a balance approach, that your good deeds will balance your bad deeds. Christianity does not take that approach, and, to be honest, most people don't accept that his good deeds balance of his bad deeds.

I have become convinced that there is a case to answer. There are too many accusations from too many places to ignore, although none have yet been proven, I have been convinced that there was something going on, that Savile had, at times, acted inappropriately towards underage girls. He abused his power over them. That is a disgrace.

The truth is that this is not just something from one person in the past. Churches and clergy today do the same - abuse their power over people, use their position of power to tell people what to do. Sometimes, use their positions of power to sexually abuse children. What is more this abuse is  continuing, and is not just in the past.

The actions of Jimmy Savile - whatever they were - were reprehensible. Doing a lot of good does not justify this. But maybe we should also focus on current and ongoing abuses of power, because - dare I say it - doing it in the name of God is even worse than doing it in the name of celebrity.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Rochdale and Eastborne

This last week has seen two interesting stories relating to children. They are quite different but both have some interesting insights.

Firstly, the story of Megan Stammers, who ran away with her Maths teacher, Jeremy Forrest. There is still some doubt over exactly what went on, but they are back, which is good. The problems I have are the betrayal of trust that Forrest showed, because his job is to look after the children in his care, not to abduct them.

If that is what happened. Of course, Megan might have been far more willing than "abduction" sounds. And, as others have said, she will be seen as the victim, and get all of the support, he will be seen as the perpetrator and be demonised. But, at this point, we do not know exactly what went on.

Now I do accept that Megan is 15, and so is the victim, but Jeremy may also be a victim. And all of those who are so insistent that at 15, Megan is still a minor, remember that she is just a few months away from the age when she can expose her breasts legally in the Sun. That does not justify it, but it shows that the age of consent is not some clear fixed point, but a randomly determined age at which every child is determined to be an adult, at least partly.

What of Jeremy? Recently married, and yet runs away with one of his students? The oddity of this makes me certain that there is more to this than we have yet heard. It is, I am sure, more complex than seems to be assumed. We - myself included - are often too quick to just to assumptions, but I think there is something more in this story than we yet know.

Rochdale is a completely different story. Here, young girls were abused, raped and pimped out systematically, and - to me the most shocking part of the story - when they told the authorities, they were dismissed. the official position was that they were willingly engaging in sexual activity, and were working as prostitutes.

The fact that this activity could continue - they were being picked up outside school - without anyone picking up that this was an issue shows a lack of oversight. The fact that they were not listened to is a disgrace - the accusations should have been investigated, even if they proved false. This dismissal of the complaints, without ascertaining their veracity, makes this the more sickening of these two stories.

Just his weekend, accusations have come out about Jimmy Savill, also about child abuse. It is interesting that, given these accusations, the BBC says that it has investigated in depth and found no complaints raised, and no basis of these accusations. It is interesting to see that when a celebrity is involved, the investigations are done properly.

"Suffer the little children" said Jesus. Not in this way though. When we fail to nurture and enable our young people, we are failing our society and our faith. This is not an easy or simple thing to do, but I understand it as meaning trusting and respecting our young people. It means listening to them when they talk, it means ensuring they are safe when with others. This does not mean simply CRB checking their group leaders.

It does mean treating them as thinking people, especially as they hit their mid teens, and allowing them to think for themselves. It means listening to them, trying to help them work out their problems, not just spoon feeding them our answers. If we can enable them to act responsibly, think through their faith, grow up to be mature members of society, who know what they believe and can discuss it, then we are doing them well. My experience is that too many churches do not do this.