Spare a thought

23 June 2008

My contribution to BBC Radio Humberside’s Breakfast programme on Monday 23/06/08

The news from Zimbabwe that the Movement for Democratic Change has decided, in the face of mounting violence and intimidation across the country, not to contest the presidential election run-off, is a salutary reminder of Lord Acton’s observation, as far back as 1887, that ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  It is a desperate situation for the people of this country – a place so full of natural resources and potential, yet held in the vice like grip of a corrupt regime which presides over the economic chaos which gives rise to so much poverty and injustice.

The people of Zimbabwe join with those of Burma and Tibet in experiencing the political impotence which comes when those who have power have no real interest in the long-term flourishing of the individual, but are consumed with retaining power for themselves.

Of course on a Monday morning in Humberside all this seems a long way away and it is tempting to relegate the plight of the Zimbabweans to the background chatter of the news headlines.  There are other things more pressing on our time and demanding of our attention – yet one of the strengths of our age is that the plight and sufferings of others has an immediacy which draws us into their situation.

Freedom is a precious commodity, which I believe is God-given.  It gives us the dignity of making choices about how we shape our lives and our futures.  In a democracy we surrender something of that freedom every time we go and vote. Elections give us the opportunity to comment on the way in which our freedom is being used by the government and if we feel that they are wasting the opportunities we’ve given them, then we can remove them from power.

It has taken us a long time to reach the point where the democratic choice of each and every adult is part and parcel of our freedom and a sign of our dignity with in our community.

We quickly forget the struggles that we had in our own country for everyone – male and female to be able to vote.  Indeed it wasn’t until 1928, only some 80 years ago, that women in England got the same voting rights as men.  The struggles for the right to vote where about status — to be given the vote confirmed that a person mattered – they had status.

The way in which the people of Zimbabwe are being treated by their government just says that the people don’t matter – in the eyes of a corrupt regime the people have no status.  And as our week gets underway we may well feel that there is nothing we can do to change this situation – but there is – we can give them status by just pausing to think about them.  Those of faith can hold the Zimbabweans in their prayers and those who don’t have faith can still stop and give the people of is Zimbabwe a status by keeping them in their hearts and minds.

One might feel that this is a rather small and inconsequential response to the plight of a people so abused by the powerful — but deeds of darkness flourish when the world is preoccupied with its own busyness.  Robert Mugabe’s regime will fall, but its end will be hastened by a world which recognizes that people of that country, each of them, have a status which cannot be removed by the corruption of politicians and in the meantime we gave a small amount of our time each day to think of them because they may not matter to your Robert – but they do to us.

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Everything must change

13 June 2008

I have just been reading a really challenging book by Brian McLaren called ‘Everything must Change’. In the book McLaren looks at the values which are around in contemporary life and sets them against the life of Jesus. He argues that the core message of the gospel actually addresses the economic, political, environmental and social problems of our age, but for it to speak into our age, the church has to move away from talking about the externals of faith and concentrate on what Jesus was actually trying to say.

In many ways he is stating the obvious, but I have sat through so many sermons (and preached a few of them myself I fear!) which are brilliant about the finer points of doctrine, or biblical criticism, or church life, but which don’t actually address the gospel themes of justice, peace, forgiveness or hope. Too often we assume these things are known and understood, forgetting that we are in a culture which doesn’t really understand that this is the stuff we are about. What McLaren reminded me was that this lack of understanding is to be found amongst those who are part of the church, as well as amongst those yet to include themselves in our number.

If you really want to be challenged about the Christian faith – what it means and how we have allowed the practice of faith to divert us from the core message of Jesus, then this is the book for you.


28 or 42 days – living within the tension

11 June 2008

As the House of Commons prepares for its vote on the extension of how long terrorist suspects can be held without charge it is encouraging to see some MPs in moral anguish about which way to vote. Liberty and freedom are ill served by MPs who blithely support the government regardless of concience or regard to the bigger picture of freedom and rights.

When we give power to governments through the ballot box, the first duty of the elected government is to protect the people from abuse of the power which they have been given. It is often portrayed that the government’s first duty is to protect the people from external threat, but history suggests that the biggest threat to the individual comes not from a foreign power but from their own government and its agents abusing their power. We are too quick to forget the Matrix Churchill affair where it was clear that the Government was more concerned about its public face than the freedom and rights of the individual. The Scott report revealed that the government of the day was prepared to sacrifice the freedom of the company directors by putting them on trial, rather than lose face (see The Scott Report).

We have already seen the anti-terror laws used in ways they were not intended, e.g. to prosecute individuals such as Milan and Maya for expressing their freedom of speech. More and more laws, give more and more opportunities for agents of the government to abuse the power they have been given.

If freedom is a God-given aspect of being human and a symptom in each of us having a God-given dignity, then we need to resist every attempt to interfere with that freedom, unless we are convinced that the gift of freedom has been abused. We need to set a high standard for removing or restricting the freedom of others, for we are each the focus of God’s loving attention. There has to be a balance between this belief and the safety of the community – the real question for MPs tonight asks how far we are prepared to live within that tension.


Where’s the thirst for peace?

2 June 2008

One can hardly believe amidst all the natural disasters which bring so much grief and heartache in the world and especially at present to the people of China and Burma, that the weight of pain and grief is constantly added to by human folly. This weekend’s announcement by the Israeli government that they plan to build 900 homes in East Jerusalem is hardly the action of those who are thirsting for peace.

I am constantly drawn back to the young Palestinian scouts and guides whom we encountered in Manger Square in Bethlehem on our pilgrimage last year. They were demonstrating in their thirst for peace – “we deserve peace” they kept telling us as we mingled amongst them and their passionate thirst for it came through. Peace in the Holy Land will always be elusive until their is a thirst for peace and justice on both sides.

The future for peace is very bleak whist there is a government in Israel which is prepared to build houses in one of the most contentious parts Jerusalem. On the pilgrimage I am planning for next February (2009) we will have an opportunity to offer our prayers and support to the peoples of this troubled land.

The work of Sabeel – The Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem makes a vital contribution to mediating for peace. The Friends of Sabeel in the UK provides a good way for us to support and encourage a thirst for peace in the land which cradled the Gospel of Peace.