Saturday, 25 June 2016

Northern Ireland After 'Brexit': An Open Letter to Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser is a Church of England priest, social critic, journalist, and broadcaster. He strongly supported the United Kingdom leaving the European Union in the current referendum. This is my response...

Dear Giles,

On Friday morning, we all woke up to the news that the UK- or at least a majority of voters within the UK- had voted to leave the European Union.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that there’s really no way to overstate the importance and monumental nature of this news. Our age of hyperbole calls every event 'historic', but Friday really was; there's a very definite, concrete 'before' and 'after'. And many of the consequences are even now beyond comprehension or understanding.

For reasons that’ll become clear by reading on, I was backing ‘remain’. I did my best to engage with the ‘leave’ campaign as best I could, but I remained unconvinced;

And not just unconvinced, but resistant.  

I’ve been following your work and writing since the days surrounding your support of the Occupy movement outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on 2011. I enjoy your columns in the Guardian.
I’m aware of your academic credentials, and they are extensive. On many issues, we agree; on some, we disagree. 

That’s quite normal and understandable.

Respectfully, on ‘Brexit’, we disagree. I’d like to tell you why.

In your Guardian column of 11 February, you invoke the English radical egalitarian movements of the 17th century, the Diggers and the Levellers, the leaders of the English Reformation, and even those who stood against the Norman Conquests in the 11th century, declaring them all ‘the original Eurosceptics’. By doing so, you seem to be attempting to make the case for your own Euroscepticism by showing that it has a long and historic pedigree in Britain.

It’s an interesting argument, but I think it becomes problematic when picked at a little deeper.

In that column, you bring up the English Reformation:

In the 16th century, Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established home rule for the church. As article 37 of the 39 articles puts it: ‘The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.’ The Bible was to be written in English and not in a foreign language that ordinary people could not understand… In the popular imagination, the English Reformation was a Brexit.

This is simply bad history. Henry VIII wasn’t interested in a Bible that people could understand; if he had been, he wouldn’t have outlawed William TyndaIe’s English translation in 1530. The truth is Henry wanted a Bible that he commissioned, controlled, and had approved. What he came up with was the ‘Great Bible’, which he eventually banned all but the upper classes from reading. In 1546, every English translation in England other than the ‘Great Bible’ was burned.

Furthermore, when you refer to a ‘foreign’ language, you’re obviously referring to Latin, which was the language of all academic, scientific, and theological work, and which no one in England at the time would have characterized as a ‘foreign’ language.

At bottom, what this shows is the difficulty of trying to assign modern ideas and understandings to people from earlier historical periods. For one thing, people of the Feudal and Tudor periods would not have thought of themselves as ‘British’- as that political and cultural identity had not yet developed- but as ‘English’.  Not only that, but their understandings of concepts like ‘Europe’, ‘foreigner’, ‘foreign rule’, not to mention ‘democracy’, would differ considerably from a modern understanding. There’d be similarities, of course, but any reputable historian will warn against trying to prove historical precedent for a 21st century idea based on arguments from the 17th- much less the 11th...

But where I feel you cross over into recklessness is in your Guardian column of 5 May, when you draw direct parallels between support for a ‘Brexit’ and the Protestant ethos on one side and the EU and Catholicism on the other:

In Protestant countries, the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity. This was precisely the sort of centralisation that Luther challenged, and resistance to it is deep in the Protestant consciousness. 

I am an Irish citizen. Belfast was my home for 13 years. As a post-conflict expert, I was involved with several post-conflict projects, working to bring reconciliation and social transformation in the wake of 30 years of conflict that saw thousands killed and tens of thousands wounded and bereaved. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 eventually introduced a political settlement that formally brought the conflict to a close, but Northern Ireland remains deeply divided- socially, culturally, and politically.

Because of the history between Ireland and England, all those aspects of division are also shot through with a religious dimension.

From your writing, it seems that, for you as a member of the Church of England's clergy, the issues surrounding the Reformation have been long settled;

In Ireland and Northern Ireland, the issues are not that simple or settled.

Sectarian division- and sectarian violence- even after the peace agreements, are ever-present realities. 

Cultural displays such as flags, memorials, and marches can all lead to serious social unrest. 

Most paramilitary groups have disbanded, or at least (mostly) disarmed. But smaller dissident factions, particularly those from the Irish Republican political standpoint, are extremely determined to carry on the armed struggle.

Even though their level of military capability is extremely limited, they have killed security personnel as recently as within the last few months.

Because of its history and this current reality, the issues surrounding a ‘Brexit’ will affect Northern Ireland more directly and acutely than any other part of the UK.

Northern Ireland will now be the one part of the UK with a land border with the EU. That border will now be significantly hardened; the checkpoints and surveillance that was all dismantled in 1998 will presumably all go back up again.

Borders are an extremely touchy subject here.

The Irish Nationalist political parties that signed the Agreement on the specific provision that the border be softened and closer ties with the Republic be fostered are already demanding a referendum on scrapping the Agreement and pursuing reunification, which the Unionist political parties reject out of hand.

Plus, another key piece of the Agreement allows people in Northern Ireland to carry both Irish passports (which are EU passports) and UK passports (which will now no longer be EU passports). As so many of the issues of the conflict had to do with nationality and identity, the potential new arrangements are not merely confusing but potentially explosive.

And who knows? The dissident paramilitary factions, who earn most of their money now from smuggling fuel, cigarettes, and alcohol across the border, might now be able to diversify into people trafficking as well…

None of this was brought up during the debate (if one can even dignify the rhetoric surrounding the referendum by calling it ‘debate’); the whole issue of leaving the EU was largely approached from the perspective of England, and really just appeared to many of us to be a petty civil war between factions of English people within the Conservative Party.

The Scots voted to remain;

The Northern Irish voted to remain;

Even most of the large English cities voted to remain.

The issues surrounding Northern Ireland were utterly ignored.

They were certainly ignored by you.  

I bear you no ill will. I do not begrudge you your political views. But seeing as you are not only a columnist but also a priest in the Church of England, for you to even hint at analogies about determined, democratic Protestants defying continental Catholic tyranny, when the issues on which you are commenting directly impinge upon the peace and stability of Ireland and that part of the UK that is Northern Ireland, was incredibly thoughtless and potentially destructive.

The day after the voting, your column was keen to stress the need for healing and communication between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ voters:

We have become strangers to each other and it’s high time we got to know each other again. And perhaps to find some way to like each other a little bit more. For this has been one of the nastiest campaigns I can remember, exposing bitterness and deep anger one for the other. Now is the time to stop blaming each other for our differences, and to listen a little bit more sympathetically. With Brexit, we have our democracy back.

Speaking as an Irish person, a theologian, a post-conflict specialist, and a Catholic, I find this an unacceptable postscript to your- and our- ‘Brexit’ journey.

For you, it appears to be all over but for the healing;

For the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland, wounds that were healing are now open, and the damage might just be beginning…

Friday, 17 June 2016

British MP Jo Cox: The Motive for Murder (and why we might never know...)

Yesterday’s murder of UK Labour MP Jo Cox, 41, has rocked Britain’s social and political equilibrium. In a nation where the violent crime rate- particularly committed with a firearm- is surprisingly low, and where practically all politically-motivated violence disappeared with the end of the Provisional IRA’s campaign over a decade ago, this has been a truly shocking event.

The fact that the victim was a young, vibrant, committed MP has only added to the shock. While it is true that the public’s opinion of ‘politicians’ seems to be at an all-time low, Cox didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of the ‘politician’ that so many of the public purport to loathe.

Regardless of the intemperate rhetoric thrown about calling for ‘politicians’ to be strung up, tarred, feathered, jailed, or just given a bloody good hiding, she seemed like the last one that anyone would actually want to gun down on a public street…

This inevitably leads us to the painful, difficult question of ‘why?’ Why her? 

We can, of course, look at the recent campaigns surrounding the EU referendum- the screaming headlines, the vitriol, the accusations back and forth of lies, deception, racism, and corruption… The debate has been an embarrassing shambles.

But even with all of that, why would someone resort to murdering a dedicated MP, a young wife and mother?

Sadly, we may never know.


Because the suspect in custody, Thomas Mair, is white, British, and a self-identified Christian.

If only the suspect were a minority or a Muslim…

If Cox’s killer were a Muslim or minority, every Muslim in the country would be considered a material witness, with detailed, clear knowledge and understanding of the individual and the crime.

White self-identified Christians have marvelous advantages when Muslims or minorities commit atrocities…

…because white Christians have a perfect knowledge of Islamic faith, culture, and politics;

We know what they believe, why they believe it, and why they do what they do.

And if a crime or extremist action is committed, we know that they always know who did it.

We’ve all heard the commentary of the experts on TV; 

Muslims and minorities are closely-knit communities, insular and introverted;

They all know each other; they all understand each other;

They are conformed and coordinated;

If a crime is committed, they all know who did it and why;

Even when they repudiate violence and extremism, we know to take that with a grain of salt;

Whatever they say or do, we know they are constantly inciting each other to violence.

Muslims and minorities are not transparent; they very often don’t mean what they say, and what they say very often has the exact opposite meaning of what they say.

They might say that they condemn violence, but white Christians know all the code words and hidden meanings…

They might talk about ‘peace’ or ‘social justice’, but we know what they really mean…

We read a book once;

We heard a speaker once;

We heard an expert on the news once.

So, as you can see, from a purely investigative standpoint, it is very unfortunate that Cox’s killer was not an Islamic extremist;

If they were, we'd all be in no doubt about their background or motives;

Sadly, the shooter was white, which makes him an absolute enigma.

We can only assume that he was weird or sick, since white shooters have no beliefs, no politics, no prejudices, no motives.

No one incites them; no one encourages them.

Nothing that a white, Christian-identifying politician, priest, or pastor ever says can ever be seen as inciting violence or intolerance; the very idea is absurd. Everything they say is perfectly clear, understandable, rational, balanced, and logical.

The very fact that what they say is ever misconstrued as intolerant, hateful, racist, or violent only points to just how crazy that listener was or is. Any rational person listening heard it for what it was…

White Christians have no code words; no hidden meanings;

White people are calm and rational, in control of their intellects and actions.  

Finally, no other whites from Christian backgrounds can be of any help whatsoever, since white Christians never have any idea why one of their own might be violent or unstable.

In fact, the minute a white Christian commits a crime, an atrocity, or a racist act, he or she magically ceases to be a Christian, immediately disowned and disavowed.

Conversely, crime, racism, atrocious behaviour only serves to make the Muslim more Muslim. Muslims cannot disown or disavow their own; 

Only Christians have that benefit...

Moreover, whites can give no account of their 'lone wolves' or 'bad apples'; they grow indignant at the very suggestion that they might possibly have any insight into a shooter’s motive, let alone that there might be a pattern, that their rhetoric might be toxic or incendiary, that they might need to be watched, that churches or gatherings might need scrutiny by the authorities.

Whites don't inform on their own. Beyond that, how could they possibly?

White Christians don’t all know each other;

They don’t all think alike;

They are diverse and independently-minded.

And their faith, culture, and politics are normal, non-threatening, non-violent…

… Every book and paper they read says so; 

Every speaker they listen to says so;  

Every expert on the news says so.

So we may never know why Jo Cox was murdered.

The incendiary vitriol of the EU referendum? Couldn’t be…

The endless anti-immigrant rhetoric? Don't be ridiculous...

The neo-Nazi literature? What an isolated loner nut job…

‘Britain First’! He seemed quiet…

We’re all at a loss. I guess we’ll never know.

If only- oh, if only- the suspect were a minority or a Muslim…

Then we’d know…

Sunday, 12 June 2016

In The Wake of Orlando: Kenosis and Creation

I have an interesting relationship with my own ideas.

In my experience, ideas sit in the back of my consciousness, simmering away on low heat, without my feeling any great rush to get it on paper.

I always seem to instinctively know the moment to actually put it together into something that I want to share.

I’ve had an idea- actually two closely-related ideas- percolating away for about two weeks now, and it’s time to throw them out there.

The catalyst to actually formulate these into something resembling a coherent reflection has been the horrific attacks on the nightclub in Orlando that has seen at least 50 people killed. 

News is sketchy at this point, but all evidence is pointing to this being a homophobic hate crime.

But my original idea wasn’t about anti-LGBT violence, but came out of the most recent British Social Attitudes data that shows that “No religion” is now the largest single identification in England and Wales- nearly half the adult population.

That’s twice the population who self-identify as Anglican- the state church;

That’s four times those who identify as Catholic, and more than five times those who identify with non-Christian faiths.

This pattern is being broadly seen across Europe and also- though not to the same degree- in the US.

In response to this data, the 27 May issue of the UK’s Guardian newspaper had a fascinating editorial piece, ‘Disappearing Christianity: Suppose It’s Gone Forever?’ 

Without ever asserting that Christianity was in some way better or superior to other faiths or philosophies, the piece nonetheless held that Christianity has had a profound effect on the development of European civilization in general and British society and culture in particular- legally, politically, in education, and in public morality:

Such an enormous change is bound to have implications for the rest of us. A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.

This is a very delicate point to make. For all that European Christian civilization has given in terms of art, learning, philanthropy, and philosophy, it has also been violent, cruel, intolerant, and imperialist, and there are many who would be delighted to see its demise.

Regardless of my rejection of their remedy, I fully accept their right to be outraged.

Nevertheless, I think the piece is on to something. The point it makes, in my mind, is that, if Christianity disappears, we have no way of knowing what the effect of that will be on all of the social structures that Christian morality originally underpinned… or if what replaces that Christian moral underpinning will be able to maintain those social structures in the same way.

What I took away from the piece was this: the Christian Church- in all its diversity- needs to soberly and practically reflect on its historic faults, as well as its historic contributions, to the history of human civilization in a spirit of repentance and humility;

It needs to soberly reflect on this historic shift away from institutional Christianity, and what part its own doctrine, practice, attitudes, and actions might have contributed to this rejection;

And it needs to soberly reflect on the possible effect the disappearance of Christianity might play on human society in the future…

… and why that disappearance might be the Church’s own fault…

Without getting into any mushy evangelical treacle about how ‘the world needs the Church’, I do believe, as a Christian theologian, that Christian theological reflection has contributed much over the centuries- and has much to contribute- to human society, with a methodology and message that are unique and indispensable.

What is the Church to do?

I think a possible way forward might be in the Church emulating Christ’s ‘Kenosis’ (κένωσις)- Christ’s emptying of himself of his own will and being completely receptive to Divine will.

The Church- in its institutional incarnation- must empty itself, die to itself, completely and totally…

… and give itself to humanity in a new way at this specific moment in history.  

As Jesus died, the Church must die. It is, like Christ’s, its only chance of resurrection.

The most practical thing I can think of that the Church in its entirety must do- right now- is make its peace with human sexuality.

It must make a kenotic emptying of any and all of its qualms, prejudices, rejections, and half-hearted acceptances and embrace the reckless, raging, furious acceptance of humanity that God has shown to us in the person of Jesus.

The Church must do this, not because it is expedient, but because it is right;

Not to save itself, but hasten its death… and resurrection.

It must develop theological reflections around God the Creator, the creator of the full spectrum of human life, love, and being.

Let me be plain:

We now know that on the sixth day, God created gay people- 

every doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, and anthropologist attests to this- 

and that which God created was created ‘good’.

Now that we know that- and we do know that- we now know that God’s creation is even more complex, dynamic, beautiful, and mysterious than we’d known previously.

This discovery- like every other aspect of creation we have discovered- should be embraced with joy and praise, not grudgingly accepted as a complication to be managed.

It must happen, and with LGBT people being mowed down in the street, it must happen now.

Creation demands it.

God demands it.

At this moment in human history- this moment in the whole history of God’s creation- there is no other salvation for Christ’s Church than for the Church to empty itself and embrace God the Creator…

And to embrace God’s creation made manifest in the lives of LGBT people.

There’s probably more, but right now, that’s all I can think of…