Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Prime Minister, the Pig, and the Poor

News that UK Prime Minister David Cameron- according to a source who would indeed know- allegedly performed a sex act on the severed head of a pig while he was a student at Oxford in the 80s is all over every inch and byte-space of global media. And honestly, if you just go back and read that last sentence again, how on Earth could it not be?

It’s a horrifically fascinating story, and I’ll not spend a lot of time recounting it here.

Most of the commentary on the allegations has revolved around whether or not it’s true, why Cameron’s people haven’t explicitly denied it, and whether or not Cameron can survive the scandal.

I’d like to look at it from another angle.

The incident allegedly occurred while Cameron was a member of Oxford’s Bullington Club, an ultra-exclusive, secretive society dedicated to excess, debauchery, and social advancement.

This is the elite of the elite;

former members fill Cameron’s cabinet, the government, and the board rooms of major banks and corporations.

Unless your wealth and family connections nearly guaranteed that you would run large parts of the global political and economic superstructures, it was an impossible club to join.

It’s ironic that many of the benefits that the poorest people in our societies rely on for basic survival are often referred to as ‘entitlements’, because being a Bullington would make you nearly the dictionary definition of ‘entitled’…

One widely-reported claim about the Bullington Club is that new initiates must burn a £50 note in front of a homeless person.

Whether true or not, the claim had me reflecting on the fact that, even though we talk about the poor and the homeless ‘living among us’, we often forget that they actually do.

The homeless, the asylum-seekers, those surviving on public benefits, the unemployed, those trapped in the gears of an economic system that sees them as worthless;

They see and hear, watch and listen.

Even if we’ve never actually burned money in their face, the waste, built-in obsolescence, and debt that our consumer economy is built on is nearly the same thing.


In the Book of Sirach, included in the biblical text by Catholic and Orthodox churches, we read:

My son, deprive not the poor of his living,

    and do not keep needy eyes waiting.

 Do not grieve the one who is hungry,
    nor anger a person in want.

 Do not add to the troubles of an angry mind,
    nor delay your gift to one who is begging.

Do not reject an afflicted suppliant,
    nor turn your face away from the poor.

 Do not avert your eye from the needy,
    nor give that person occasion to curse you;

for if in bitterness of soul he calls down a curse upon you,
    his Creator will hear his prayer.

What the text makes clear is that the poor are not simply sad and depressed;

They are resentful and angry, and with good reason.

They know full well that they are being at best ignored and at worst willfully exploited.

The text gives us a picture of a cold, raw February night,

In London, Dublin, New York, or any major city;

A stiff figure sits up against the wall of an exclusive eatery, wrapped in two used coats, holding a sign that says ‘Please Help’.

A Lexus pulls up and is met by a valet parking attendant.

A well-dressed couple gets out, wrapped in leather and silk scarves.

As the couple walk past the huddled figure, the man says to his date, ‘You hungry? God, I’m starving!’

She responds, ‘Let’s just get inside. Jesus, I’m freezing to death!’

The huddled figure watches and listens.

As they move past, he quietly murmurs,

‘God damn you, fucking parasites…’


The Sirach text explicitly states that one prayer in this story is answered…


So, as the Bullingtons of the world slash the safety nets of the most vulnerable;

As they demonize those uprooted by conflict and poverty;

As they malign those who are fleeing religious and political extremism as perhaps being terrorists themselves;

As they look after each other with benefits, bonuses, tax breaks, privilege, and positions,

And all the while paying lip service to ‘family values’, ‘hard work’, and ‘Christian heritage’…

The Sirach text is a disturbing, uncomfortable read.

Put that in your pig and smoke it…

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Our Lady of Sorrows: Faith of the Grieving

Today, 15 September, is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Yesterday, we meditated on the cross, and we arrive today at the effects of that cross, not just on Jesus, but on his mother.

Today is the day that Christians remember that Mary was a mother- the same mother of the Christmas story.  But today, we come face to face, not with a new mother, with the mixture of joy, relief, hopes, promise, responsibility, and perhaps even the apprehensions of every new mum. 

That is gone. Today, there is only hysteria, blood, death, and grief;

Endless, relentless grief…

Two reflections have come out of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows; the most common is a Catholic reflection on the nature of suffering and its intrinsic benefits to the human soul. Reflecting on suffering and grief, both our own and Christ’s, so says this line of thought, build and perfect us and bring us closer to Christ.

I understand where this is coming from, but it worries me, in that I think it runs the risk of making grief and pain a spiritual discipline or a theological abstraction.

There is, of course, also a socially conscious reflection that draws attention to Mary being a mother of a man tortured to death in public after an unfair trial by an oppressive regime, and that this state of affairs continues in many parts of the world today. Mary is seen as a participant in that struggle, in solidarity with the suffering. 

It’s a credible and necessary reflection- certainly more so than the first example- and to a large degree, I embrace it. How could I not, with the theological work I do?

But these days, I’m more cautious about it.

I’m afraid it might obscure Mary’s personal grief and loss… 

The kind of personal grief and loss that we will actually encounter in this life...

Mary's grief was real and personal, and anyone who has experienced grief and loss- 

the death of a loved one; 

a catastrophic illness; 

the end of a relationship; 

a friend or family member caught in addiction- 

can relate to accounts of Mary’s grief.

Grief is more than sadness, a bad mood, or a frustration of plans.

Grief feels like a cancer that attacks a person’s ability to hope.

Grief is like steel, like a knife- hard, sharp, and cold, scraping at the rib cage, trying to get at the heart…

Anyone who has grieved- truly grieved- will be able to relate to C.S Lewis’ description of his own grief at the death of his wife, Joy:

No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep swallowing… 

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I met Joy. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘common-sense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace…

I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief…

The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything…

Rarely have modern Christians engaged with grief as lucidly and starkly as Lewis did in these texts. It was not an abstract theological exercise but a seemingly-relentless, ever-present condition of the heart, head, and body... 

where Jesus says in the Gospel text, if we need to be reminded, is the setting for our love of God...

To not grieve is to not be human.

Our Lady of Sorrows is Mary at this moment of human grief, real and ongoing.

We don’t know if Mary ever got over her grief, moved on from the horrific loss by the death of her son, but the terms ‘got over’ and ‘moved on’ are, in themselves, callous and offensive, implying that the best course for grieving people is to allow deep and delicate parts of their psyches to go numb...

I believe Mary functioned.

She lived.

John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, looked after her for the rest of her life.

Perhaps, over time, John became like a son to her…

‘Like’ a son…

Acts 1 and 2 relate that Mary remained with the disciples, and that she was present at Pentecost.

Perhaps that encounter with the Holy Spirit of God was strength and comfort to her…

'Strength'... 'Comfort'...

We can only speculate, and grieving people can indeed, if not ‘move on’, then move forward...

But over the centuries, Christians have given us this picture of Mary in the midst of grief; 

Our Lady of Not Coping Well At All;

Our Lady of Falling Apart;

Our Lady of the Ache of Loss;

Our Lady of Not Wanting to Get Up in the Morning and Dreading the Long Nights;

Our Lady of Painful Memories;

Our Lady of the Panic of Loneliness…

The world is full of trauma, and people are caught up in it.

The Christian faith can help us manage the grief that erupts from human existence.

It will not make it go away;

But it can help make it bearable.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us…

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Holy Cross: Unfairness, Injustice, Grief, and Pain

Today, 14 September, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. 

This is the day when Christians disabuse themselves of any notions that life is in any way fair, just, or free of grief or pain. 

This is the day when we must accept the fact that, if there is any fairness, justice, healing, or restoration, it is happening by way of one or the other of two things: 

by a miraculous intervention by a God committed to life and liberation; 

or by an act (or more likely acts) of courageous resistance against whoever holds a vested interest in maintaining structures of unfairness, injustice, cruelty, and suffering. 

In the shadow of the cross, all evidence points away from there being fairness or justice in this life... 

But against all evidence- and there's a lot of it- I cling to a belief in a God of life and liberation... 

Don't ask me why... I simply do. I must. Leave it at that.

I also cling to a belief in the power of people to change what is unfair, unjust, grievous, and destructive. 

Holy God, make a way though there appears to be none...

... and give us the strength to make it happen...

Sunday, 6 September 2015

'The Activist(?) Undone': A Re-Writing of Ecclesiastes

The words of the theologian, educator, and activist:

Futility; all is futility. Nothing is worthwhile; everything is worthless. What do we get for the amount of work we do?

Generations go, generations come; causes go, and new causes arise; movements arise and then pass away, and newer movements arise… But the earth is unchanged.

Day in, day out, sunrise to sundown… What has been is what will be; what’s been done is all that is done.

Nothing changes; nothing is new. Try to think of one thing of which you can truly say, ‘now THAT is new.’

Been there, done that.

The movements are forgotten, the issues are blurred, the activism is not nearly as effective as we try to convince ourselves it is.


I, the teacher, was dedicated and committed to social transformation.

My social media was filled with all the right causes.

I ‘liked’ all the right things; I ‘followed’ all the right people.

I prided myself on how well I kept people informed about the important issues of the day:

The plight of the Palestinians, the heroic actions of the Kurdish fighters in Rojava, environmental issues in the Cascadian region, the struggles of peacemakers and social activists…

I encouraged people to educate themselves, to be informed, and to take action.

But now I look at it all and say, ‘what has it accomplished, all the ‘liking’, the ‘following’, the ‘trending’?

The poor starve, the weak die, the cruel win, the forests burn, the fish die, and I got 37 ‘likes’…

In my opinion, nothing is worthwhile; everything is worthless.


My wardrobe was politically conscious. I had badges that declared my beliefs, shirts and scarves that showed solidarity with important struggles;

My jacket was covered with patches that supported the saving of the oceans, that made clear I stood with the Zapatistas, and that called out racism and homophobia.

I said to myself, ‘When people look at me, they can see my dedication; they will be inspired to ask questions, to learn more, to strive, to struggle, to change the world.’

But actually, few people asked. It was, first and foremost, for me- to make me feel active, involved, and keyed in, to look cool…

Most of it was futile, worthless, a chasing after the wind, not doing anywhere near what I made myself believe it was.


I dedicated myself to theology that was progressive and radical, public and political.

I devised the most clever and intricate theological reflections; I presented new interpretations of the biblical text designed to stimulate social transformation.

I filled my CV with accounts of seminars given, papers delivered, chapters written, and accolades collected.

I said to myself, ‘you are making it happen. You’ve achieved a lot. Your wisdom is acknowledged by incredible people.’

But now, I wonder…  I perceive that it might all be a chasing after the wind.


I was condescending to theology and spirituality that was ‘personal’ or ‘individual’. Theology, I reasoned, was about building the movement, pushing things forward, transforming the social context.

God was a liberator;

Jesus was a child refugee, a worker, a prisoner, and finally a victim of state terror;

We drew strength for the social struggle out of understanding his social struggle;

He wasn’t your ‘best friend’, your ‘co-pilot’, or your ‘lover’;

He was our ‘comrade’, our archetype, our example… our leader…

I said to myself, ‘Jesus exists to give the struggle for social transformation meaning. He is our lens, our paradigm. The personal prayers and poems are a distraction at best and a detour at worst.’


Then my world fell apart…

Everything familiar vanished.

The days became a wash of confusion, loss, loneliness, despair, screams, and tears…

I descended to the depths, becoming ever more frightened at every new realization of just how deep it went…

I, the teacher, was undone- a naked, weeping heap on the floor of an empty room.


I looked back on my social media posts of the weeks before;

The Kurds, the PLO, the IRA;

The Ulster Unionists, the struggle in Western Sahara;

The buffoonery of Donald Trump; the wit of Jon Stewart;

The impeccable arguments of social theorists; 

The right political music; the most conscious hip hop, world music, and reggae;

None of it mattered. 

It was futility, worthless, a chasing after the wind… A wasting of time…

I was alone… and none of it was good company.

I said to myself, ‘why did you think this was who you were? Why did you invest yourself in this? Did you think that this was your strength, you sustenance?

‘Fool… You utter fucking fool’…


I, the teacher, noticed something very strange and disorienting:

All became personal and individual

All became survival.

I found myself weeping on the shoulders of people who attended churches of which I disapproved;

I found myself having to pull over, weeping on the side of the road, at Mark Heard singing ‘I Know My Redeemer Lives’, a hymn that, a week earlier, I’d probably have dismissed as overly sentimental and theologically dubious; 

I stopped thinking so much, lit a candle in front of an icon of Christ and, as I had no wisdom to give or knowledge to share, was quiet…

I found myself praying very simple prayers, prayers like ‘Please help me. If you’re there please help me’…


My world became very small. 

Rojava, Western Sahara, the Greek economy, the refugee crisis, Congress, Westminster, the Dáil, and the faltering Irish peace process all receded across a far horizon.

I was re-introduced to Jesus- a simple man who grieved at the death of his cousin and wept at the grave of a friend;

I was reintroduced to God- a God who an ancient Hebrew declared ‘near to the broken-hearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed.’

I removed badges and patches from my jacket. 

A great many causes and movements will need to do without my endorsement for a time.

I’m listening to very different music and reading very different books.

I said to myself, ‘find out who you are, apart from all this’…


The people are still there, but they look different.

The 'Palestinians' and the 'Irish' that I cared for in the abstract have become people again. They are are still there, but now they are individual brothers and sisters, in Bethlehem and Belfast, who message to say that I am in their prayers...


I, the teacher, am leaving aside my teaching for a time.

I have only one thing left to teach:

Know God; know yourself;

Be just and do good…

But don’t neglect your deepest heart while you do it…