Category Archives: Questions

No wasted votes

It seems that it’s only the prospect of significant political upheaval that has the power to boot me up the butt and get me on the old blog.

I wish I was motivated and disciplined enough to write more regularly – I really do – but I think for now I’m content just to write whenever I feel the pressing need to.

And I’m not writing as a political expert – far from it! – but the winds of politics seem to be buffeting us Brits every which-way at the moment, and the narrative – which appeared to be destined to unfold in only one possible way just a few short months ago – has fractured into possibilities rather than certainty. I’m left with my jaw hanging open, wondering what on Earth is going to happen next…

Which brings me nicely here, to my blog that is all about questions; a little online space I have carved out for myself for whenever the pressure of such wonderings becomes so great that I have to release it by expressing them to a wider audience than just my long-suffering husband.

The most immediate, pertinent question to me at the moment is one that a friend of mine posed at the weekend: if you are voting in a safe seat against the candidate that will almost certainly win, what is the point or value of your vote? This question came out of a genuine weight of concern that voting with her conscience would have no effect. It’s one I’ve asked myself in the past, and for once, I feel like it’s a question that I have at least a partial answer for.

My response at the time was to point out to my friend that even if the same MP is returned again this time, if everyone who wants to vote for another candidate does so, there will be firm evidence of whether political opinion has remained the same or shifted at all. If the voting data records a shift, that’s worth noting and will be noted.

After she left, and I thought about it some more, as I felt as though that answer required further development. Voters may not, after all, see the value in recording shifts in opinion. So if there is a value, what is it?

Very simply, if the results of an election show a shift in public opinion, whoever wins said election has to take note, or they risk losing the support of the electorate. A swing in voting tells our country’s leaders the proportion of people who care about certain policies. If it’s enough of a swing, it will change the focus and direction of political debate, and give the opposition more power to oppose policies that the public views as harmful.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound like much, and I know there isn’t a huge proportion of the electorate that follows political debate closely between elections, but believe me, there is power in political conversation. No general election happens in a vacuum. The ongoing debate is filtered through the media, and more than ever, thanks to social media, involves the rest of us if we are able and willing to engage. As the discussion evolves opinions can change, and policy needs to be re-shaped accordingly.

So, if you’re considering not voting because you don’t feel there’s any point in your own consistency, take note. Your voice is heard, and filtered into the ongoing political narrative, if enough of you get out and vote. It will not be a waste of your time or your political voice. So do it – get out there – and be a part of the unfolding story!

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Should the West intervene in Syria?

The Syrian conflict has gone on for far too long. I could fling out the dreadful figures of how many have died, how many are refugees, how many are internally displaced, but the trouble is they have become only that – figures, not unique representations of the human beings that have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of Assad and militant groups jostling for power over the opposition. These real people, who bleed, and break, and burn, and choke on the lethally poisonous gases fired at them by – as the media reports it – almost certainly the Syrian regime.

Something must be done. Or should it? Here is where I come up against a startling brick wall built by people whose opinions I usually understand and agree with; that actually, intervention by the West ought to be a complete no-no. Is this an ideological principle, or is it rooted in the fear that we will have another Iraq all over again? Does it stem from the belief that our governments are incapable of acting out of a sense of responsibility towards those who are suffering, that there always has to be self-interest involved?

The indignant comments I read mostly compare potential intervention in Syria with our invasion of Iraq, the obvious motives of greed and the spurious reasons of Saddam’s WMDs which were squirrelled away so expertly we never could find them. It’s a good thing to consider the motives of our governments for such interventions, but there is danger in this particular comparison. Danger because, first of all, we assume exactly the same motives spur our governments on to intervention in Syria (if there were economic benefits to entering into this mess, would the West not have dived in to the fray many months ago?). Secondly, and more significantly, there is the danger inherent in our automatic judgement that, just as with Iraq, our governments are creating evidence for atrocity where there is none. If we unquestioningly judge that the whole chemical weapons event in Ghouta was staged because WMDs in Iraq were a red herring, we are at risk of denying real, horrific suffering.

What particularly chills me to the bone is the opinion I have read more than once, that we ought to leave Syria to sort out its own problems. Not because I think the West ought to have influence over the political outcome of the conflict, but because I imagine what might happen if the roles were reversed, and I was one of those on the receiving end of a Sarin attack. Would another country then come to my aid? Yes, there might be political and economic gains for them to do so, and that begs the much bigger question of how the international community is regulated. But how would I feel about a world that never came to help? We ought to be concerned about what the consequences will be for international relations if we sit back and do nothing. Already, there are a million Syrian child refugees. When they grow up, how will they view the world that left them to ‘sort it out for themselves’? What precedent are we setting if we ignore the terrible human cost of the chemical weapons attack at Ghouta? Isn’t that the kind of soil that nourishes bitterness and hatred?

I don’t have answers to the question of what intervention could look like. I would simply like to open the debate a little on whether there ought to be intervention or not. At tho moment, those who are traditionally the voice for the voiceless in the large part seem to have closed that debate completely, along with any creative engagement in possibilities other than military force.

The undeserving poor..?

I hear the expression ‘the undeserving poor’ a lot lately. For some reason it never fails to get under my skin, but I never really stopped to think about why until quite recently.  They don’t bother working, don’t pay tax, leech off the State and spend all their benefits on satellite dishes and Nintendo Wiis.

But the question I ask myself is, even if this massive generalisation is true (and I doubt it), who are we to say how people on benefits spend their money? Would I like it if I was judged on how I spend my money? Not likely.

It is a big question, I must admit, and one that a welfare state will always need to address: what do we do about welfare that benefits those who give nothing back to the State? They don’t deserve the money they get, because they don’t contribute anything.

But then, that also begs the question, does anyone deserve the money they get, whether wealthy, poor or in between?

Having been thinking about it recently, a couple of days ago I strayed across this excerpt from the book of Proverbs;

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy. (Proverbs 31:4-9, NRSV).

Advice from a mother to a son, a queen mother to her king.

I expect this principle could be taken too far, generosity taken advantage of even more than now (though I’d hardly call it generosity from those who are so begrudging that some of their tax money goes to those who have so little). I shouldn’t think King Lemuel’s mother was advocating carelessness about budgets.

And if I’m to be consistent with how I read the bible, I need to be aware that the queen mother was speaking into a particular social and economic context, which may or may not resonate with British society today. Unfortunately, I cannot find any other reference to King Lemuel in the Old Testament which leaves me to work with the text in Proverbs. Is there a timelessness to the truth King Lemuel wrote down in his mother’s words? I think there is.

It remains true that poverty is harsh and difficult.

It remains true that poverty can bring misery.

It remains true that alcohol can indeed help people to forget their troubles – though we also know now, if we didn’t then, about the physical damage too much drinking can do!

But if we take the principle behind the suggestion, which is to give to those in poverty whether it seems they can use what they are given to help themselves or not, this to me sounds like an outworking of grace. Grace doesn’t try to contain us, teach us a moral code, or control us with a strict set of behaviours. Grace accepts us freely as we are, and its power to transform is within that unconditional freedom we are offered. Grace is the difficult way, giving people choice rather than limiting what we offer to them. Grace is sublimating our own judgement so that God’s judgement – which is steeped in grace – can work itself out.

It can of course be argued that it is not the State’s responsibility to be an outworking of God’s grace, and perhaps that is so. But it must be remembered that much of the social reform in Britain since the industrial revolution has been brought about by religious groups working to change government policy. And it remains the responsibility of christians to bear witness to God’s teaching in our society.

And one final question to end on: who on earth is capable of making the moral judgement on whether someone ‘deserves’ welfare or not? Me? Certainly not. And a quick glance at our Cabinet doesn’t reassure me…

When democratic institutions fail, what next..?

Set up our democratic institutions side by side, knock one over and see what happens…in the UK we began with the media, a crucial element of democracy, yet one of which large swathes are now regarded by the public with caution, if not outright distrust. And so we set up an inquiry.

Some of the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry has been to turn our attention to the government, parts of which are fatally enveloped in the mire of media’s undue influence. We can’t be simplistic about apportioning blame, since both media and politicians appear to be locked in a continuous cycle of dependence, the balance of power shifting from side to side as they wrestle over the question of who drives policy. However we have seen enough to lose more than a modicum of faith in parliament’s ability to put the needs of the public on at least the same par as their own influence and income.

And now we are faced with a crisis in the banking sector, which while not itself an institution of democracy, is required to be transparent and accountable in order for democracy to function as it should. As we’ve seen over the last few days, these characteristics are laughably absent from some key aspects of British banking. And so the trust is broken again. Depressingly there are already indications that the current scandal over LIBOR could also implicate the government on some level, though perhaps such a conclusion ought to have been inevitable.

Our government is going to have a long uphill struggle to build up public confidence in the functioning of British democracy, if indeed it is in their power to do so. Perhaps democracy, being now stripped and all its flaws revealed, can find new directions for growth. The internet is a valuable resource for many things, but I begin to see that in the upholding of democratic principles it is more than valuable – it is essential. Through social media people across the world, in countries far more restricted than our own, voices are being heard and stories are being told. Accountability is more possible because news of injustice can be more widely shared. Who knows what the internet could become in the pursuit of stronger democracy if it continues to be the place for free expression that it currently is? It is quite significant that there are movements within those great bastions of democracy, the US and the EU, to enforce greater control over internet traffic and reduce individuals’ privacy when they are online. Just knock our confidence in democracy even more, why don’t you?

I don’t hold British democracy in complete contempt. We have the core structures for it to work well if it is overhauled, and (so far) the judicial system is intact (though who watches the watchman?). It has weathered several centuries, and grown and developed over time. It has the potential to shake off the dust that’s settled and disguised the worst flaws, and be reinvigorated if we who condemn it will invest energy into it. Perhaps if new growth is permitted, British democracy will emerge stronger than it has ever been before.

Twitter and the art of democracy

Hello to any who reads this…I’ve decided to pick up the blog again, since my time is slowly becoming more available for such things once more, and I’m buzzing with questions about the incredible upheaval that our society seems to be going through at the moment. I have also recently begun being active on Twitter, which has opened up a vast new realm of facts, opinions, news before it breaks, hilarity, satire, grief, contentiousness and oh so much more. I’ve read and absorbed more news in the last few weeks than I had in the last year BT (before Twitter, that is), but the problem therein is my maximum capacity for information. It doesn’t by any means allow for the scope of what is flying around the social networking sphere about the Leveson Inquiry, about the Queen’s Speech and government policy, about the local elections last week, about the new Israeli goverment or what’s happening in Syria, or about what people think of all those things. Fortunately, what I do find is that with practice it is possible to skim and sift, pick the stories of immediate interest, and even to build connections between facts that, on the surface, are completely unconnected. A wider picture of the living, breathing entity that is our society, both local and global, begins to emerge. The picture is undoubtedly skewed towards my preferences of who to follow (among the best being Graham Linehan, or @glinner, I have to say), but follow enough hash tags and it becomes possible to see through the eyes of people whose views differ widely to your own.

The picture is broader and wider and deeper and longer than any one mind can hold, and is by no means restricted to the two-dimensional. For example I have been following the Leveson Inquiry with great interest – and on this and closely related subjects, there is reams and reams of material to sift through. I had to delete my #Leveson column for a day or two as my brain began to go into meltdown, though I will be picking it up again tomorrow with avid interest, no doubt. But it has left me with much to think about – I have by no means forgotten all of it! – and the biggest question I am left with is this: for a man of Rupert Murdoch’s character, intellect, power and wealth, just how much control has he exerted over the exposure of his company’s illegal activities and work ethic generally? It’s just one to throw out there, really. I’m not one for conspiracies at all, but I can’t help suspecting that he had at least some idea of what was coming, and self-preservation is a natural human instinct, after all. If he anticipated the exposure he could perhaps have done something to mitigate for the worst effects, to protect himself and those close to him from the full impact of these events.

So where do I see this question fitting into the broader picture? I think it’s of particular interest that in the UK we are going through this seismic shift in media accountability alongside economic chaos in Europe signified by our own double-dip recession. At least when the government has bad news to tell us about the economy, it can do so under cover of exciting revelations at the Leveson Inquiry, and if there are some particularly indicting details about its media connections to be told, the announcements can be timed to coincide with news of supposedly positive policy changes. Or cabinet re-shuffles, perhaps. We are, after all, easily distracted. However the connection between these two significant facets of UK life runs deeper than a mere distraction technique for the government. How much of our confidence in our government’s ability to restore economic growth is knocked by the apparently inextricable links with News International staff? We are left with little faith in our government and our own democratic process – we are a nation with the wind kicked out of us, and declining economic conditions to boot. If the national confidence in itself and its government is lost, then we will of course slip several rungs down the ladder of economic prosperity.

We struggle because so much has been hidden from us, so much that runs deep into the core of what our society is or has become. But the great, the marvellous thing about Twitter, and social networking generally, is that there will always be someone who notices that which is trying to remain hidden, and thus, despite all its glorious (and not so glorious) faults, information spreads uncontrollably. Twitter offers us greater transparency than any government can, and is therefore a highly valuable cog in the machine of democracy.

Why do we need heroes?

It occurred to me recently that the concept of the hero is one of the most powerful storylines present in any film or television show. Those who have the courage, confidence and strength to make the brave choices, to take the difficult path in order to protect the rest of us who are weak and vulnerable – these characters are prevalent in so many stories. Even films in which the hero theme isn’t obvious still use the idea of characters who drawn on courage and internal strength in order to achieve something for themselves or for others, and this seems to hook us into the story. Be it justice, freedom, personal growth or anything else, a struggle is involved. It may be less evident in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than it is in the Dark Knight, but nevertheless the exertion of courage is present in both. So, I ask myself, why on earth is that? Is it because we’re drawn to those who bear the heavy burdens and make decisions for us, or is it because we see in those heroes a reflection of what we know is inside ourselves?

I think that what makes me a bit cross is that so often the implication is that there is only one hero, and the vast numbers of people they fight to protect are passive and incapable. It feels to me like a misrepresentation of humanity to say that one person fights the incoming aliens while the rest of us run fleeing and screaming off the screen and into obscurity. I know that stories wouldn’t be believable if they didn’t reflect the reality of human experience, and it is true that we struggle to overcome fear in dangerous situations, but I do think that the ‘one one behalf of millions’ representation is a bit of an overexaggeration. Do we love the hero more, the more people they have to protect? I suppose that’s possible, and that’s why we devour the films with the obvious hero theme. The cynic (or perhaps realist) in me says that it is a distortion of reality used by producers to make lots of money at the box office. But then perhaps there is some value in the hero story as it opens up the question to us, if we’re willing to engage with it, of how we might respond when a hero is needed.

Perhaps the draw to a hero story is both about the desire for protection and the need for our own courage to be revealed. Perhaps it needs to be both. There are times in which we need to be comforted, protected, defended; times when our need is greater than our ability to be strong. There are also times when we are called on to be brave for others, to protect them in turn as they go through their difficult times. To deny that humanity reflects the entire breadth of the spectrum of giving and receiving courage, would be to deny the fulness of our nature. And perhaps, after all, the best kind of hero is the one who enables us to both understand our own limits and unlock the potential within each of us to find the courage that life sometimes requires.

Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.