Posts Tagged ‘Society’

I am quite a fan of TEDtalks – there have been many fabulous talks and enlightening speakers presenting on a wide-range of subjects from surviving a suicide attempt to becoming an activist, with almost every conceivable topic in-between.

Strangely enough religious leaders often do not make the best speakers, regardless of the topic they’re exploring. Pope Francis though, unlike his immediate predecessor, has an engaging, well-grounded and warm personality that brings to life the subjects he passionately cares about.  His delivery is straightforward, as are his public messages; they are not couched in convoluted theological language.  In this respect, I often feel that there is a clear parallel between the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury and his predecessor.

Anyway, I digress! Francis’ TEDtalk is not delivered from the typical TED stage; instead he talks from behind a desk in the Vatican.  His message is simple – change starts with individuals; hope begins in the individual heart. From that starting point, hope and solidarity with ‘the other’, those who are marginalised and powerless becomes a powerful possibility. In-so-doing he makes the point that there is really no difference between us – we are all loved by God in our uniqueness and imperfection.

That said, Francis reminds us that the powerful….the significant in worldly terms……are especially tasked by God to use their wealth and influence in ways that bind us together rather than pull us apart.

That our world is in a mess, largely because we have ignored the radical message of Christianity and settled for something that is, in many ways radically exclusive and uncaring, is obvious.  Our world is fractious and riddled with war and cruelty in myriad forms.

But Pope Francis provides a timely reminder that each and every one of us, regardless of creed, can harness the power of hope and promote equality, solidarity and tenderness.  His call, in essence a reminder that we all need each other and that none of us exists in isolation.  In that respect he echoes, in his own words, that wonderful Ubuntu saying, ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’  Hope demands therefore that we should all be ‘team players’, constantly looking at ways to co-operate with each other for the greater good of all.

Never has Pope Francis’ plea, “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the ‘other’ is not a statistic, or a number,” been more important than it is today.  How we work that ethic out in practise in a complex and perplexing world is another matter.  But then again, we need simply start with ourselves, reflecting on the work that needs done within us and amongst us – the rest will unfold against the universal backdrop of hope and love.

You can make your own mind up by watching the whole presentation here:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Lutheran Minister, Activist & Theologian (image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Lutheran Minister, Activist & Theologian (image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)).

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

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’:

According to Kristin Neff, Professor of Human Development & Culture at the University of Texas at Austin: ‘People can use their skills of compassion for others to learn how to be more self-compassionate. Whenever you find yourself being very harsh with yourself, you can think of the types of warm, supportive things you’d say to a close friend in the same situation, and then say those same words to yourself. We can include ourselves in the circle of compassion, and stop acting as if others are worthy of care but we are not’.

Interesting stuff with a very practical application.  The world needs more compassionate people.  As Jesus said in Matthew 7:12 – So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’.

You can read the entire article here:


Can Being More Compassionate Toward Others Make Us More Self-Compassionate?.

I have finally got round to watching Velcrow Ripper’s award-winning documentary, ‘Scared Sacred’.  Against the backdrop of a world overwhelmed by turmoil and suffering, Ripper sets out on a unique, and often difficult, pilgrimage.  His task is to visit what he calls the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, and in doing so, he poses the question – ‘is it possible to find hope in some of the darkest moments of human history?’

To answer his own very pertinent question, Ripper travels to the toxic wasteland of Bhopal, the minefields of Cambodia, war-torn and fear-ridden Afghanistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ruined cityscapes of Bosnia.  He talks compassionately to the survivors of Hiroshima and gains insight from those who have suffered most in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This he does with consummate skill, resulting in a beautifully crafted and emotionally intense documentary which charts Ripper’s five-year sojourn to discover if wounded humanity can transform the ‘scared’ into the ‘sacred’.


McAleese makes plea over suicide – Republic of Ireland, Local & National –

Once again, Mary McAleese reminds us that as outgoing President of the RoI, she’ll be a hard act to follow.  In this piece in the Belfast Telegraph, McAleese laments the toll that suicide has on families and society at large.  She goes on to comment that:

“Mental ill-health and suicide have been with us in good times and in bad but these difficult economic times undoubtedly increase the strain on individuals and families as unemployment and indebtedness take their toll”.

“They make it all the more imperative that we do all that we can to reduce the suicide rate, reduce the unnecessary waste of human life, reduce the awful legacy of grief for the bereaved and reduce the awful, overwhelming misery of a life that feels compelled to contemplate suicide.”

Sadly, mental health issues are not taken seriously in all quarters of society; I sense that this is particularly the case here in Northern Ireland.

One of the most devastating responses a suicidal person can receive when they take the enormous step of reaching out to friends or employers for help is to be ignored.  We all have a responsibility to be more aware of the emotional well-being of those around us.

Depressive illnesses are real and their individual and societal impact is exacerbated by ignorance and misunderstanding. My own painful personal experiences have borne this out.  That is why we need more people like Mary McAleese to publicly discuss, ‘de-mystify’ and de-stigmatize suicide and mental ill-health.  It really can, and does, make a difference; in fact, it can be literally life-saving.



Was Jeremiah a Failure?.

This is an excellent article that has raised a number of issues for me!  I wonder – is it possible to be a successful ‘parish minister’ and still retain anything more than a tenuous link to an authentic prophetic calling?  The temptation to live a comfortable life devoid of controversy would seem to preclude it in some cases………….

Jeremiah was branded a failure in his lifetime.  Perhaps more of us should be content to be branded failures as measured by the standards of the world around us?  After all, whose judgement really matters?

The religious scholar, former nun and inter-faith activist, Karen Armstrong, has called upon faith leaders to collaborate to promote peaceful coexistence.  You can see her interview with Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan below.  The Charter for Compassion is an excellent initiative that works to bring people of faith together – have a look at the website ( is packed with resources and interesting practical information on how we can all live more compassionate lives in line with our respective faith traditions.

I’ve just stumbled upon an incredibly moving and courageous TED talk by Prof. JD Schramm on suicide survivors.

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Featured speakers have included Al Gore on climate change, Philippe Starck on design, Jill Bolte Taylor on observing her own stroke, Nicholas Negroponte on One Laptop per Child, Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, Bill Gates on malaria and mosquitoes, Pattie Maes on the “Sixth Sense” wearable tech, and “Lost” producer JJ Abrams on the allure of mystery.

The strapline on this video states: ‘Even when our lives appear fine from the outside, locked within can be a world of quiet suffering, leading some to the decision to end their life. At TEDYou, JD Schramm asks us to break the silence surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and to create much-needed resources to help people who reclaim their life after escaping death’.

Watch JD Schramm’s remarkable talk below, where he tackles taboos and stigma head-on, courtesy of youtube:

One in three people will be affected by cancer at some stage in their life.

One in four of us will experience some sort of mental health issue at some stage in our lives.

Although the statistics on the incidence of these two diseases are similar, societal perception is poles apart.  Mental illness is just not talked about; it is still seen in many quarters as a sign of ‘weakness’, or a ‘character failing’.  Diseases such as bipolar disorder are often characterized thus, despite the overwhelming evidence that they have a biological basis, just like cancer and diabetes and a plethora of other common illnesses.  That there is growing evidence, and an almost universal acknowledgement in the research community that genes are a major player in bipolar disorder, it seems nevertheless to have made little impact on the public understanding of this disease.

Why is that we are more willing to be sympathetic towards someone who has a malfunctioning pancreas and less sympathetic towards an individual who has a biochemical imbalance in their brain?  Is this covert form of discrimination acceptable?  Here is what the mental health charity ‘Mind’ have to say:

‘Mental illnesses are some of the least understood conditions in society. Because of this, many people face prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives. However, unlike the images often found in books, on television and in films, most people can lead productive and fulfilling lives with appropriate treatment and support.

It’s important to remember that having a mental illness is not someone’s fault, it’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not something to be ashamed of’.

Some church communities are excellent in ministering to those who are mentally ill; many are not, mainly because mental health issues are ‘swept under the carpet’ and not tackled head on.   This does a disservice to the Gospel message of love, acceptance and understanding.  For example, in John 13:34-35 it is written: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  This love is not discriminatory; it is not a love that is restricted as human love is by prejudice and misunderstanding.

Christianity is a faith bathed in hope – hope for the dispossessed and marginalised, hope for the misunderstood and the forgotten, hope for those who struggle daily with the burden of mental illness, and hope for those who find mental illness difficult to understand and to accept.  We are gently reminded of  this great hope in Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV), where Paul writes: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’.