Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Friday past marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and the International Holocaust Memorial Day across the globe. Each year people come together, from across religious and cultural divides to remember the genocides that have scarred humanity deeply and irrevocably.

mental-health-foundation-holocaust

Many moving commemorative events have taken place; some have been very public events, whilst others have been very private.  I watched Auschwitz survivors gather at the former camp in Poland on the 72nd anniversary of its liberation, and I marvelled at the stoicism and dignity of those elderly survivors.  Having visited Auschwitz several years ago – an experience that I will never forget – I simply cannot understand why seemingly ordinary people can inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings.  But then darkness and unfathomable cruelty are part of our collective human nature; for those that committed such atrocities, I am reminded of Proverbs 6:18 where it is written that there are those with ‘a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil’.

We now know the staggering statistics for the Holocaust, where six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in forced work camps and extermination camps. The scale of the suffering was, and still is, incomprehensible.

There were other groups of people that were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.  Consider political opponents, priests, ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsy people, Slavic people and gay people amongst others.  But there is one group that is sometimes overlooked: the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Foundation website published a powerful article to remind us that those with psychiatric conditions were deemed, in that most egregious of phrases, to be ‘life unworthy of life.’  The prevailing eugenic ideology in Nazi circles was driven by defective science and woeful ignorance.  The consequence of this was that an estimated quarter of a million people living with varying degrees of mental illness were murdered. That few people spoke up against this outrageous programme is chilling.

As we reflect on the voiceless and the persecuted, the question of speaking up and speaking out against injustice comes to mind.  As the Holocaust Survivor and Author Elie Wisel once wrote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. This maxim is applicable today as it was before and during the Holocaust. Our world does not want for examples of injustice and persecution; it is therefore our duty as Christians to raise our voices, to challenge and cajole, and to remain informed and vigilant as to what is going on, on our doorsteps and in the world around us.

Every blessing,

Scott

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr. David Jenkins, has died.  His theological viewpoints were always much more nuanced than were reported, or misreported, in the press at the time.  Nonetheless, what I thought was always rather striking was his espousal of a very publicly engaged form of Christianity, where the questions and answers were worked out ‘on the ground’.  As such he challenged unfeeling market economics and argued that people with the least power and influence should always be at the centre of government policy.

This balanced insight into the man and his approach was produced in 1994 to mark his retirement and is well worth watching. In my opinion we need more Christian leaders that are willing to challenge unjust social structures in such a tenacious and consistent manner.

Bust of Sophie Scholl in the White_Rose_Memorial_Room, Ludwig Maximilians Universitat, Munich (Source: Adam Jones)

Bust of Sophie Scholl in the White Rose Memorial Room, Ludwig Maximilians Universitat, Munich (Source: Adam Jones)

The iconic and heroic figure of Sophie Scholl still speaks to those of us who espouse non-violence in the modern age.  Scholl, who was a member of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, paid for her activism with her life. Her implacable opposition to the nihilistic ideals of the Nazi party led to the guillotine, a fate she met with dignity.

 The White Rose was comprised of University of Munich students and a member of the philosophy faculty there. The group’s modus operandi centred round an anti-Nazi leafleting and graffiti writing campaign, which began in June 1942 and finished just under a year later.

 Six of the most prominent members of the group, including Sophie and her brother Hans, were arrested by the Gestapo, tried for treason by a Nazi court, found guilty and beheaded shortly thereafter.

Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag said of the White Rose: ‘It is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the 20th Century… The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there, but I don’t know why,’

 Sophie Scholl was driven by her conscience and her faith.  Baptised a Lutheran she was influenced by a powerful anti-Nazi sermon delivered by the then Catholic Bishop of Münster.  Indeed her faith was a motivating factor throughout her short life, although she struggled with it during times of eternity.  Some quotes come to mind:

‘The only remedy for a barren heart is prayer, however poor and inadequate’. (As quoted in a letter to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnage)

I’m still so remote from God that I don’t even sense his presence when I pray. (As quoted in At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl).

I know that life is a doorway to eternity, and yet my heart so often gets lost in petty anxieties. It forgets the great way home that lies before it.  (As quoted in Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler).

One of my favourite Scholl quotes, which is disputed, but insightful regardless of its provenance, is as follows: The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes’.

 A great place to start if you want to find out more about Scholl, is to watch the feature film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  Based on historical evidence, the film depicts Scholl and her fellow White Rose members in a way that makes one think deeply about the issues surrounding non-violent resistance and the courage required to follow its path.  The film’s website is: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/scholl_html/flash.html

‘The gap between the poorest and the wealthiest around the world is wide and growing. This situation is not only between countries but within them, including many of the most prosperous. The World Day of Social Justice is observed to highlight the power of global solidarity to advance opportunity for all‘, so says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

UN Logo

Social injustice is pernicious and widespread.  Economic exclusion , discrimination and appalling levels of social mobility blight the world in which we live, and as Ban Ki-moon rightly says, most of the countries we inhabit.  Shockingly, recent statistics released by Credit Suisse show that the richest 0.5% of individuals hold well over a third of the world’s wealth (http://inequality.org/global-inequality/#sthash.WrSTo2E7.dpuf). And in the US alone,the richest 20% are 8.5 times richer than the poorest 20% (http://www.businessinsider.com/the-negative-effects-of-income-inequality-on-society-2011-11?op=1#ixzz2trl80suN) You don’t need to be an economist to reach the conclusion that this is not a healthy situation to be in.

Inequality is bad news. It’s as simple as that. Linette Lopez writing in the Business Insider in 2011, focused in on Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, author of a book about income inequality, The Spirit Level. Summarising Wilkinson’s conclusions, Lopez states that ‘The basic thesis is that social ills, like crime and teen pregnancy, that have long been associated with poverty, actually have a stronger correlation with income inequality’.

Lopez’s excellent article looks at some of the most shocking statistics highlighted by Wilkinson.  These include the following (Note: you can read more at: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-negative-effects-of-income-inequality-on-society-2011-11?op=1#ixzz2trlpYzQH):

  • Life expectancy is strongly related to income within rich countries.
  • Child well-being is higher in more equal societies.
  • More children drop out of High School in unequal US States.
  • Murder rates are higher in more unequal US States and Canadian Provinces.
  • Mental illness is more prevalent in unequal societies.
  • Social mobility is lower in more unequal societies.

So the picture is clear and it’s not a pretty one.  Nor is it a new one. But we can do something about it.  After all inequality doesn’t happen by accident – it’s the result of governmental economic and social policy – therefore if it can be created by these mechanisms it can be deconstructed by them too.

The Christian witness to social justice has always been a strong one.  Who can fail to take heed of Isaiah 1:17: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’? Or what about 1 John 3:17-18: ‘But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth’?

There is much to reflect on today.  The ‘World Day of Social Justice‘ calls us to think how we, each in our own small way, can do something to make a difference.  The status quo is not an option. As Ban Ki-moon reminds us:“The gap between the poorest and the wealthiest around the world is wide and growing. … We must do more to empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalised are heard.”

 

Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Much media attention lately has focused on the difficult negotiations between the Iranian Government and representatives of what is commonly called the ‘P5 + 1’ (which consists of France, Germany, UK, USA, China and Russia). An atmosphere of distrust typically permeates such meetings, although recently this has abated somewhat.

What many people are not aware of, is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei,  has issued a fatwa  (legal judgment) saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam.  Indeed, on 22 February 2012, Press TV reported that Ayatollah Khamenei also said the following:

The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

Although there is grounds for scepticism regarding Iran’s stance, the religious impetus to opposing nuclear weapons has some serious history.  Those of us who are Christian know that most denominations oppose the use of nuclear armaments based on their indiscriminate and horrific destructive power. That some may justify the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is balanced by the abolitionist stance of the historic peace churches – the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. Many of us would concur with Archbishop Renato Martino who once said: “Nuclear weapons cannot be justified and deserve condemnation. The world must move to the abolition of nuclear weapons through a universal, non-discriminatory ban with intensive inspection by universal authority.” Or what about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “Nuclear abolition is the democratic wish of the world’s people, and has been our goal almost since the dawn of the atomic age. Together, we have the power to decide whether the nuclear era ends in a bang or worldwide celebration.”

But what of Islam?  Is Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa an isolated incident? It would appear not.  In an article entitled: ‘The Moral Case Against Nuclear Weapons‘ and published on the Methodists United for Peace with Justice website (http://www.mupwj.org/moral_case_against_nuclear_weapons.htm), Howard W. Hallman explores Islamic attitudes to weapons of mass destruction. Drawing on “An Islamic Perspective on the Nuclear Weapons Danger” as presented in the Muslim-Christian Study and Action Guide on the Nuclear Weapons Danger (pp. 21-27), Hallman presents “six powerful reasons for Muslims to oppose the production, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons.”

  1. They represent a serious threat to peace, while peace is a central theme of Islam.
  2. They are brutal and merciless, and thus violate the Qur’anic description of the message of the Prophet Muhammad (p) as “mercy to all the worlds.”
  3. They are contrary to Islam’s promotion of human fellowship.
  4. Nuclear weapons do not fall within the scope of legitimate self-defense.
  5. Nuclear weapons research and production waste a huge amount of resources.
  6. While the argument for nuclear deterrence is not un-Islamic in principle, and while such deterrence apparently did work during the Cold War, there is no guarantee that it will work in the future. Nor is there any guarantee that nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of non-actors.

So, perhaps there is much that unites our divergent faiths.  Mutual distrust and a lack of insight into the ethical underpinnings of our respective religious worldviews can, and already has, obscured the ‘bigger picture’, leading to firmly entrenched misunderstandings. But there is hope – a hope that we can work together to rid the world of these heinous weapons and to remove the threat of their use forever more.

 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The prospect of a military strike on Syria by the USA is causing consternation across the globe.  The sheer hypocrisy of the US position is staggering; here we have a country that has actually used WMD on a massive scale in Japan during WWII, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, but now finds it convenient to take the moral high-ground on chemical weapons (which incidentally they used in WWI).  What they also conveniently forget is their widespread use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the devastating consequences this caused, again for the innocent civilian populations.  And then, more recently, there’s the use of depleted Uranium in Iraq – used of course by the British and the US forces).  In a recent article by

  • John Pilger in The Guardian (

Sunday 26 May 2013) he highlights makes the following point:

‘Among the doctors I interviewed, there was little doubt that depleted uranium shells used by the Americans and British in the Gulf war were the cause. A US military physicist assigned to clean up the Gulf war battlefield across the border in Kuwait said, “Each round fired by an A-10 Warthog attack aircraft carried over 4,500 grams of solid uranium. Well over 300 tons of DU was used. It was a form of nuclear warfare.”‘

Frighteningly, when Pilger went on to interview Dr Jawad Al-Ali, an internationally respected cancer specialist at the Sadr teaching hospital in Basra, he received a shocking insight:

‘”Before the Gulf war,” he said, “we had two or three cancer patients a month. Now we have 30 to 35 dying every month. Our studies indicate that 40 to 48% of the population in this area will get cancer: in five years’ time to begin with, then long after. That’s almost half the population. Most of my own family have it, and we have no history of the disease.”‘

If any other country had been responsible for such indiscriminate suffering, they would be accused of perpetuating war-crimes. But of course that hasn’t happened, nor will it because the people who are dying are weak, powerless and bereft of a voice.

It seems to me that unless moral ‘red lines’ are applied across the board, there will never be peace.  Picking and choosing which events to be outraged about is as nonsensical as it is disingenuous. Sadly, in the Christian tradition we all too easily forget what Scripture actually says on these issues: ‘So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).  What is wrong for one person or group to do is wrong for all – a simple rule for a consistent ethic that values all equally.

Yes, the US is right in demanding a response to the abhorrent use of chemical weapons, but military strikes are not the answer.  In fact they may even make the situation worse and draw other players into a catastrophic regional war. Moreover, it is inevitable that more lives will be lost and more refugees created in what is already an unstable situation. The conditions for a ‘just war’, which I’ve heard several US decision-makers refer to, have not, and will not. be met.

What will happen in the end is that a negotiated settlement, assisted by the international community, will need to be reached.  Bombing will not bring this to fruition – only diplomacy and sustained pressure from the International Community can do that. And once that is done the perpetrators of chemical warfare can be brought to justice.

Ask any Greek citizen about austerity and they will tell you about a broken country – one in which the poorest and most marginalised have lost what little stake they had in a society reeling from an unprecedented economic collapse and painful bailout.  Fiscal austerity is not just a phrase – it has real consequences for real people. And perhaps not surprisingly, it is the homeless and the addicted that feel the full force of a tornado of budget cuts that they had no role in precipitating.

Athens has witnessed an explosion of homelessness and unemployment; the long-feared humanitarian crisis is making itself felt among those who can cope with it least. Worryingly, within this toxic mix of rising costs, homelessness and unemployment an added ingredient – drug abuse – is resulting in the perfect storm of suffering and misery.  Greece’s powerful new illicit drug, Sisa.  According to Wikipedia, Sisa  is ‘a methamphetamine derivative which can be found exclusively in Greece originating in Athens. Its use has been prolific due to its low cost which can be as low as two euros for a single dosage. The drug is commonly used as an alternative to cocaine‘.

The long-term effects of Sisa use is not yet known.  However, users report increased aggression and the formation of severe ulcers. This burgeoning underclass of those who have lost all hope is a disaster that Greek society will be wrestling for many years to come.

The film-maker that focuses on ‘underground’ or ‘hidden’ stories, VICE, has recently released an excellent film on the plight of the marginalised in Athens; it makes for very sober viewing indeed. The sense of hopelessness is palpable as the film tells the story of those people who are viewed by their government as a nuisance to be cleansed from the streets and swept from view.

In the film I could see nothing of the work of non-governmental agencies in helping the homeless with food, accommodation and rehabilitation.  I thought primarily of the Orthodox church, a very wealthy institution in its own right. And I remembered reading an article somewhere that stated that the Church was regularly distributing in excess of 1,300 meals per day to the poor and homeless. But what about drug rehabilitation?  Well, that’s very expensive and beyond the resources of the state at this point in time, never mind the Church which is very much in ‘firefighting’ mode when it comes to the overwhelming need it encounters on a daily basis.

Is there hope in this situation? Of course the Church fulfills its role as a prophetic witness wherever it raises the banner of social justice and in-so-doing shows hope in action.  Although church bodies are by their very nature limited in the specialised drug rehabilitation they can offer, they can shout loudly with a view to shaming their government into a more compassionate approach; the homeless in Greece and elsewhere, are hungry for compassion and love.

Anyway, you can watch the first part of the film here (and the second half follows on from it on youtube):

Today saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, arguably the most divisive Prime Minister the UK has ever had.  Some love her, some loath her; nobody has ‘no opinion’ when it come to assessing her legacy.

When Thatcher swept to power in 1979, I was only 6 years of age. Over the next eleven and a-half years I remember vividly growing up in a part of the UK – Scotland, that was markedly ill-at-ease with the effects of Thatcher’s social and economic policy.  I was very much aware of the whirlwind of social change that saw the heart ripped out of mining communities and manufacturing industries closing down one-by-one; most have struggled desperately to recover.  I remember the very visceral reaction to watching ‘yuppies’ in the city of London making obscene amounts of money from a culture of greed and rampant individualism.  It just seemed so wrong; the gap between the rich and poor was widening at an alarming rate and unemployment reached record levels, neither of which seemed to concern Mrs. Thatcher as she marched on towards a free-market utopia.

It seems to me that Thatcherism is alive and well today in modern Britain.  The vulnerable are victimized and the rich keep on getting richer.  Senior bankers continue to pay themselves bonuses regardless of performance.  The oft-repeated phrase ‘we’re in this together’ rings very hollow for the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly. It’s all so sad and unnecessary.

All of this is the backdrop against which I finally got round to watching Ken Loach’s thought-provoking film ‘The Spirit of ’45‘.  Loach’s documentary focuses on the remarkable spirit of unity which saw Britain through the war years and propelled it into an era of unprecedented co-operation, enabling the creation of the National Health Service and other landmark achievements.

By using film from Britain’s regional and national archives, alongside sound recordings and contemporary interviews, Loach succeeds in creating a rich political and social narrative that makes for compelling viewing. The Spirit of ’45 is a celebration of community spirit, the impact of which endured for many years and made life better for so many people.  Indeed, Loach himself said: “The achievements of the ’45 Labour government have largely been written out of our history.  From near economic collapse we took leading industries into public ownership and established the Welfare State.  Generosity, mutual support and co-operation were the watch words of the age.  It is time to remember the determination of those who were intent on building a better world.”

The challenge of ‘The Spirit of ’45‘ is to envisage a new era of national co-operation.  It goes without saying that although the challenges faced in 2013 are different to those in 1945, the spirit of co-operation is most certainly something that we urgently need to recapture. And that’s why Ken Loach’s film is so important. As a Christian, it forces me to reflect, and of course to take very seriously the numerous passages of Scripture that remind us that we are not just individuals, but responsible for one another in a very real sense.  Take Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 as an example: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken’. Or what about Hebrews 10:24-25? Here it is written: ‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’.

 Here is the trailer for ‘The Spirit of ’45’:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c86Gwsb5LY

I first watched Astra Taylor’s brilliant film ‘Examined Life‘ a year or so ago.  I was initially drawn to it as it contained a segment by the mercurial philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek. I had of course heard of Cornel West, the American philosopher, academic, activist, author, but had not read any of his publications.

I say that Examined Life is brilliant, partly because it focuses on the thoughts of key critical thinkers, like Žižek and West, but also  Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt and Judith Butler.  But perhaps more than the content of each individual’s thoughts is the fact that by their very actions they are pulling philosophy out of academic journals, textbooks and classrooms, and put it back where it should be – on the streets.  Taylor accompanies these thinkers through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and has helped them formulate their ideas.

For West, driving through Manhattan stimulates his critical thinking and sees him comparing philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how invigorating and exciting a life of critical thinking can be. Furthermore, he encourages us to adopt philosophy as a critical disposition, informing and shaping our lives and intellectual development. West’s drive to highlight philosophy’s power to transform the way we see our self and how we fit in to the world around us, is essentially a microcosm of Taylor’s documentary.

You can watch Cornel West’s thought-provoking contribution to ‘Examined Life‘ here:

 

Professor Robert Hare, once said of psychopaths: “They use superficial charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and satisfy their own selfish needs… They lack conscience and feelings for others, take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest guilt or regret.”

Such a description fits the one-time Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin Dada like a glove.  A classical example of a psychopath in power, Amin wreaked havoc across Uganda, brutally killing opponents and wrecking the Ugandan economy.  Moreover, Amin’s megalomania knew no bounds; as an example, his full (self-bestowed) title ultimately became: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”  Quite a moniker, but not unusual one for a dictator.

The film below offers a unique insight into the world of Amin the dictator.  His superficial charm is obvious, as is his inability to focus on the subject matter in hand.  Perhaps most revealing though is how his cabinet ministers related to him – largely with deference and fear, even although his pronouncements were obviously deluded and increasingly bizarre.

Tragically, Amin is not the sole inhabitant in the club of psychopathic dictators. The list is a long and decidedly non-illustrious one and includes such despots as Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi among many others. Frighteningly, there are more out there……………..and that is why it is essential that we are always on our guard against the next Amin or Gaddafi, wherever they may come from.

Here is the film, which is well worth watching: