Monday, 31 March 2014

Equal Marriage

Last Saturday, equal marriage became a reality in the UK. Many of us were celebrating, but @VickyBeeching - as a high profile supporter of equal marriage - received some very unpleasant responses, being told that she was a heretic, a fool, wrong, anti-Christian. Many of the responses were quite unpleasant.

What particularly disturbed me was the comments - repeated by a few people - that "the bible is clearly against homosexuality".

The argument and discussion that I have seen and have almost had is as follows:

"The bible is clearly against homosexuality"
"No it isn't."
"Sorry, but you clearly read a different bible to me."
"Actually, I read the same bible, but I have spent a lot of time studying it - I have a degree in theology - and explored the material in great depth. My carefully considered opinion is that the bible is not against homosexuality."
"Ah well, just because you have a degree, doesn't make you closer to Christ."
"I never said it did. It does help me understand what the biblical material is really saying. It gives me a better understanding of the original material"
"But the clear reading of the bible is that homosexuality is wrong"
"Your clear reading. Mine is different. Why is yours better than mine?"
"I rely on Jesus to give me insight, not academics"
"I rely on both, not dismissing either"

Let me be clear, I do respect the bible, I do believe that it is divinely authoritative and I do read it with humility and wanting to learn from it. But I also bring my academic head, my life-experience head, my caring for people head. I accept that others will come to different conclusions from me. That is fine, as long as they are prepared to be open and discuss their position.

However, so many of those responding to Vicky were clearly not interested in listening. They had views, and nothing would change those views, because anyone arguing something different, by the nature of them disagreeing, is clearly coming from a place not worth listening to.

That is, in honesty, unacceptable. It is unacceptable in academic circles, of course, but it is also unacceptable for anyone seeking the truth, genuinely wanting to grow and find truth wherever it it. Evangelical Christianity is about searching for truth - predicated on a belief in the incarnated presence of the divinity, revealed through the words of the bible. To reduce this to a slavish devotion to your interpretation of one version of the bible seems to be far more arrogant, far more dangerous than an open exploration and search for truth.

And really, is God that small?


WARNING; If you have not read the book Room by Emma Donaghue then this post may contain spoilers for the story. Sorry about this, but they are necessary for what I have to say.

OK, I have, of course, recently finished reading this superb and disturbing book. It is disturbing because of the nature of the story, which starts with a young mother and her five year old child Jack who are locked in a room. It tracks the ways that they find to pass the time, it covers the astounding efforts that the mother goes to attempting to provide her son with something of a normal upbringing.

Then, half way through, they get out.

The mother is then back to normal life, something that she re-adjusts to easily and quickly, enjoying and reveling in her new freedom. Jack is rather more disturbed by the sudden revelation that Outside was as big, wide and strange as it is. As we read it, we see everything from our perspective - as residents of Outside - and yet we appreciate the Jacks perspective seeing things for the first time.

Actually, it provides an interesting and challenging perspective on our world, when you look at it from another set of eyes. Actually, a world with just two people and a ghost in it is far easier to make sense of than the huge, complex, problematic world that we actually live in.

And yet, as I read it, I was reminded of something else - the church, and its attitude to the world outside.

Sometimes, at least, people in the church behave rather like the child. Those whose perspective on the world is totally dominated by the church sometimes behave like that - blinking in confusion at the oddities in the real world; confused by the fact that the rest of the world do not share the church perspective on life; not really appreciating the freedom that the world provides, because there is a freedom in the small world of the room, and less confusion.

What is interesting is that Jack finally returns to the room, and sees it for what it is. He has been in the world outside for months, and realises that the Room, which he has been yearning for, is as small as his mother knew it was. Finally, he can say goodbye to the Room, and live his life in the real world, get on with the complexity and confusion that is the nature of reality.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

World Vision

It is rare that I get angry about stuff that happens. But then, it is rare that my social network is as flabbergasted at events that have taken place over the last few days.

Two days ago, World Vision US announced that they were changing their policy to start employing people in same sex marriages. This was a bold move, and one that was welcomed by many as a real sign that some of the big, international evangelical para-church organisations might be changing to reflect the wider view and perspective of the evangelical church. It was brave, but it was an important move.

Not unsurprisingly, there was outrage from the more conservative parts of the church, who were withdrawing their support and money from the organisation. Of course, the people this was actually hurting were the children who were losing their money and support. Of course, this also attracted new supporters, but it appeared that the overall situation was that the charity was losing money.

Today, they announced that they were reversing this decision, declaring that it was a mistake.

I am almost speechless.

I am not angry at World Vision. I fully understand their decision - at the end of the day, they want to support the children who depend on them, and they have made a decision that will enable them to continue doing this to the best of their ability. They are in a difficult position, relying on voluntary donations and so having to listen to what their supporters are saying.

The people I am angry at - furious, spitting teeth angry - is the conservative Christians and groups who are prepared to put their mistaken principles and use them to cause suffering to children, innocents, the sort of people who Jesus told us to support and look after.

Even if you were to consider homosexuality a sin, this is screwed up to a degree that makes my head spin. Let me be clear - these people are causing pain and anguish to children because of a disagreement with the sexuality of those working for the organisation providing this support. What is more, this was done by the simple action of taking their money away. Not a discussion, and expression of a disagreement, engaging with them to see what was going on - it was simply "we are not going to support these children any more, because we disagree with you".

The Naked Pastor draw a very poignant and telling cartoon on this when the news was first announced. I presume that these people who are so indignant that they have to withdraw their money are now going to check that their local shops do not employ gays. And that their employers have a strict no-gay policy. And their golf club and local restaurant are definitively anti-gay.

Oh yes, and the places these buy their supplies from must also be as acceptable. It wouldn't do to accidentally support some people that they have a moral disagreement with.

I presume that they have no problem with divorcees, adulterers, gossips, and all of the other people that the bible criticises or condemns (according to a simplistic, literalist reading).

That is the stupidity of this position - not only is it unsupportable from a biblical position, it is taken totally out of proportion. If you read the Bible, there is a lot of discussion in the prophets (especially) about those who look after themselves, and neglect the poor, the suffering, the orphans, the widows the sort of people that World Vision supports. And Jesus tells a well known parable about the sheep and the goats. The division - between the acceptable and the unacceptable - is not whether you accept gays, it is about whether you feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked. It is about whether you actually look after those who need help and support, irrespective of their sexuality.

So to those who have withdrawn their money and support from World Vision over this, I hope that you are ashamed of yourselves. I am ashamed of you. I believe that God is weeping over you. You have used your economic power to demonstrate that your stupid morality is far more important to you that any real Christian faith.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Money and stuff - and why the government are so out of touch.

There have been two significant stories this week, worth a comment. Firstly, of course, is the budget. The significant aspect of this is the "beer and bingo cuts". The government were widely ridiculed for an advert they put out about this:

There have been, of course, a whole lot of spoofs of this, but even in its original form, it is astoundingly patronising. What is more, it is pretty meaningless. a penny off a pint will not be noticed by many people, and that is assuming that the cut is passed onto consumers. The reduction in bingo tax will also not be felt significantly - some of it will get passed on, but some won't, I suspect, meaning that the real beneficiaries will be the major bingo companies like Mecca.

I don't want to dismiss bingo, but it is - at least in terms of the physical bingo halls - mainly pensioners. It is not for the currently hardworking. Even those who benefit will see a small reduction in the cost. The cost of a session, it would seem, varies between £3 and £20. So the savings from this huge government giveaway are between 30p and £2.00, assuming that the entire reduction is part of the price, and is passed on. I suspect the reduction is more likely to be under a pound. It benefits the companies that run bingo, but not the people who participate in this, at least not to a significant degree.

Which of course means that the governments huge giveaway amounts to pretty much nothing, and their ridiculous, patronising advert says it all: You minions, we will allow you a smidgen more beer and circuses.

The other big story of the week about money is the student loan situation. The story is here, but the maths of it are tricky, so I want to simplify it somewhat. A few years ago, the government raised the maximum fees that universities could charge from £3000 to £9000. They said at the time that they didn't expect most of the universities to raise their fees to this level. This was, of course, hopelessly naive, and most institutions have raised their fees. What a surprise. This was supported by the LibDems, who had promised not to raise tuition fees, and had gone back on this, losing themselves the support of a very large proportion of the student population - their chances of winning this back in a generation is very low. They committed political suicide, so how has it worked out?

What has recently emerged is that this change in fees - and the related change in student loan levels - will not get any more money back. The changes in the system, meaning that graduates don't pay anything until they are earning £21K, as well as the significant changes in the job market for graduates, mean that the money returned is no more than with the lower level of fees.

The system is complex, because it is not a "loan" in the sense that it has to be payed back - it is written off after a number of years. It is very much like a tax on graduates, based on income levels, and until a certain maximum level is paid back. The reality is that these "loans" are rarely paid back with full interest. The expected default rate is now estimated at approaching 50% - that is, nearly half of the money loaned will have to be written off and not paid back.

So the government has actually committed to paying an extra £6000 per student for tuition, with very little payback. It would have been better, politically, to have simply given this money, without the political suicide of the fee increase. The increase is simply costing the government more money, and there is no payback - except the negative payback of the political damage caused. Which means it has all been a complete mess.

What does this all mean? It seems to me that the government is really struggling to understand the basics of managing the economy. These sort of amazing blunders are coming to define the government - a sort of well-meaning buffoon approach to management that has done Boris Johnson so much good. That is not the way to manage a country. It is loveable for a short while, but not acceptable.

However, this is not just incompetence. This is calculated, malicious incompetence. This is buffoonery to hide the fact that this government is systematically mismanaging to take money from the poorer, the deprived, and give it to the wealthy. We are heading for a plutocracy, a way of ruling that does not work for many.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Stop using "socialist" and "left wing" as an insult

Maybe it is just me, but it seems that some people like to use these terms as insults. Actually, they do something worse than this - they use these terms to correctly associate the political perspective that raises certain ideas, but do this in a sneering way, as if being a socialist was something you would only admit to under duress.

I had written the idea for this before Tony Benn died, but he was someone who epitomised what actually being a thinking, committed socialist was about. It is not something to be ashamed of, but a political position that has at least as much credibility as any other. You may not have agreed with Tony, but nobody would say he was anything other than a very committed left-wing thinker. He expounded his views with politeness and consideration.

But I have heard too many people who use these terms to represent weakness, soppy libertarianism, pandering to the weak and the lazy, a push over for a sob story. Of course this is not who we want to be, we want to be on the side of the strong, the powerful, the influential, the important.

Like Jesus?

The thing is, it is far too easy to argue that Jesus conformed to your particular political position. In truth, he was not a socialist, because the term had not been invented then. But he did care for the underprivileged, the poor, the weak, those who society - often religious society - had abandoned. He was all for the downtrodden, the oppressed, those who society wanted nothing to do with. He did also associate with those who were rich and wealthy, but he would also challenge and confront them. He associated with the downtrodden, but also confronted and challenged them.

Now there are some people on the left wing of politics who are weak, pathetic push overs for sob stories. There are also those on the right wing of politics who are weak, pathetic push overs for money and influence. That does not make either of them right or wrong.

The think is, using these terms in a derogatory way demeans you. I would identify as a socialist, but that is not all about me, and I would not necessarily consider myself a good socialist. I am sure that others would also consider me a bad socialist.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Is it time for a wage spread law?

I would like to propose something that seems perfectly reasonable, but will be resisted by the "captains of industry" as much as the idea that people should not have to work 12 hour days, 6 days a week was 150 years ago.

The idea is that, in any company, the maximum wage paid to anyone should be no more than 50 times the minimum wage paid to anyone. Of course, this is not my original idea, but I want to explore it a little more - it was prompted by an article I saw proposing a "maximum wage" akin to the minimum wage. I am not convinced that approach is one that would work ( although I might be wrong, and it is an alternative route to go down).

Fifty times - lets be clear what this means: by the end of the first week of the year, the highest paid person will have earned the lowest paid persons entire annual income. Actually, I would rather the multiplier was closer to twenty times, but we can start on fifty. For some that is radical enough.

Of course, this is not just "salary" earnings. The top level should be "all income from the company", including bonuses, share options, and even expenses. The earners in the company should include outsourced staff - cleaners, maintenence staff, everyone who is regularly involved in the running of the company.

I would concede that some people may be on part-time rates, and so they can be pro-rata calculated, but anyone on a zero hours contract, with no guaranteed hours is considered to be earning nothing. I would give some leeway for apprenticeship schemes, where the low income is countered by training and a qualification, as long as that could be financially quantified.

So this would not put a cap on salaries or bonuses. If the bankers want to get their million pound bonuses, on top of their million pound salaries, that is not a problem, as long as the absolute minimum paid to anyone in the bank is £40K. If you want your chief executive to be paid £10M, fine - just ensure that your cleaners, security staff and receptionists are paid £200K. Which is only fair, because they too have contributed to the success of the company that justifies the CEO salary.

I should point out that this was originally thought through before Bob Crow died this week, but I am posting this with a nod to him, as it seems to reflect some of his beliefs.

Sunday, 9 March 2014


On my twitter feed on Friday, @RichardOsman posted that all sorts of people had been posting nasty comments about a Pointless contestant called Stephanie.

I was watching Pointless at the time, and saw Stephanie, who was, it appeared, a trans-gender person. She had, apparently (I didn't see any of the tweets) been slagged off a little on twitter. Richard was, quite rightly, appalled by this, as was I when I realised that this had been an issue.

Now I must make an admission here. When I saw Stephanie, it was clear that she was a trans-gender person. What is more, that made me slightly uncomfortable, for a moment. It took a moment for me to adjust. But that is my issue, not hers. I have not spent much time in the company of people whose sexual definition differs from the traditional. But that does not mean I felt anger or aggression to her.

The idea that people would be unpleasant to Stephanie is quite shocking. She was being who she is, and this is supposed to be a civilized 2014, where we accept that peoples defined sexuality and choices are not something that we condemn, something that we poke fun at. We are supposed to know that sexuality is not something that we "chose", but something that is part of us, and that our physical expression of may not reflect our selves. It is supposed to be a time when we accept that peoples definitions of who they are is not a simple binary choice.

I am not even going to comment on the complexities that the church has with these issues - a church that cannot yet cope with women, never mind homosexuals, transsexuals are not even within the current understanding. So there is no real help there.

The bible - and Christianity - is about loving people, caring for people, whether you agree with them or not. It is about being with people, and helping them to grow and be themselves, as children of God. So that is where I try to be, and what I try to do. There are people who I find this easier with and people I find this harder with - largely based on early interactions, and probably whether they can laugh at themselves or not.

So I think it is worth making a point here: Stephanie was showing incredible bravery in appearing. It is sad that this is considered brave in 2014, but it is. She is being who she is, and that takes a lot of courage (not because she is trans-gender, but because being the person you are usually takes a lot of courage). And it is about time we accepted people as they are, because otherwise we are encouraging a lie. And if you cannot accept someone else's gender choices, then I am not prepared to accept your stupid, intolerant attitude.

Stephanie is now on Twitter, so if you want to follow her, she is at @stephaniecutey.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Menstural Man

This article exploded onto my social network timelines recently - I am sure many of you have seen the article, or something about it. I have to say, I was delighted and cheered by this, a story of - largely - good news, and a real boon for women in India.

For those who have not heard the story, an uneducated Indian chap called Muruganantham got married. He was, as is not uncommon, very unknowledgeable about the ways of women, and discovered that his wife used very unsanitary rags for her period. As a result of this discovery, and the fact that this was very common among the local women, he has developed a device to enable them to make sanitary towels themselves, cheaply and easily.

But there is more than this. This man broke all sorts of social taboos - I am not sure we can really understand how hard this must have been for him. Rather like someone in the West jumping into a coffin at a funeral. That was the level of social etiquette he breached.

He talked to other women about their periods, which was unheard of for anyone, especially a man. He pursued this even after his wife left him. He continued against all the odds, to do something very freeing, very enabling for women.

How important is this? from the article "approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene - it can also affect maternal mortality" - this invention can save lives, and definitely save suffering. It can do this without causing women any more embarrassment - which is significant in a society where this is important.

Muruganantham has done something that we can all learn from. He has seen a problem, an issue, something that he can make a difference to. Then, despite all the challenges, all the social stigma, the reality that he became a pariah, an outcast, he continued to work on this, and found a solution. As Christians, we are often stopped from being good people, supporting others, standing up for those who suffer because of what others will say, of how we will be perceived.

He is an example to us all. I feel humbled.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

What is church?

I have been in discussions about this question for all sorts of reasons. Most of these because I claim to have "left church".

 As a rule, I would tend to mean that church is a gathered groups of people who would self-identify as a church group. This would then include all the groups and meetings that come from this. But of course, this is a structural definition - the building or organisation as church. Many would argue - with good reason - that church is more than this. Church is people not organisation or building.

So, if church is the gathering of people in the name of God, what does this really mean? Does it mean that that those who cannot, for whatever reason, "gather" cannot be part of the church? Does this not, in fact, still focus on the centralised organisation of a church meeting?

There are those who argue that meeting and engaging and discussing matters spiritual online is also part of church. In truth, this is where I get my spiritual insight from. Is this church? If it is, then twitter is church - because there are a number of us who engage spiritually online - many of whom are members of a more traditional church. If twitter is church, and facebook, and whatever other social networking tools, then pretty much everyone goes to church.

What is more, everytime I talk to someone, this is also church. All of my engagements are part of what church is. It ends up by meaning that church is not clearly defined, because church is anything I do as a Christian. I cannot get away from church, because all I do is church.

So it is meaningless. Because, if everything is church, then church is nothing. Church is "being a Christian" - so if I were to argue that the church organisation is meaningless, then surely I am right, because I don;t need to attend an organisation to be part of church.

Then, of course, the other side comes in. The quote "let us not give up meeting together" is quoted with regularity. The argument then is that by not attending an organisation that calls itself church, I am missing out, and the rest of the church structure is also missing out. I am being disobedient by not attending a "church".

I think we are in real danger of making "church" meaningless, because the more traditional church structures are failing. Rather than really considering how to address the problems, the answer seems to be "lets extend the meaning of church, so that it is not a problem any more". But that doesn't work. The truth is that the traditional church is declining.

The answer is not to make everything we do be church - the answer is to abandon this concept of "church" as anything organisational, as something to "be a part of". The answer is to accept that, for some people, being a member of a church (however you want to define it) is not something they want to be or accept as something to define them.

Why is the idea that Christians who are not part of The Church so disturbing? Maybe because for so many people church is Christianity, and the idea that they might be different - that the church may actually be irrelevant to faith - is very disturbing, very challenging.

Lets be clear, if your faith and your Church involvement are identical, then your faith is in the Church, not in God.