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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…

Can conflict ever resolve?

For someone who hasn’t been in a fight since those sibling battles of childhood, I somehow have picked up an interest in the conflicts of others. Perhaps it was living in Belfast for a while and working for a charity that engaged in peace and reconciliation that did it, though I can’t say for certain.

And of course the whole area of conflict creates all sorts of questions, huge questions. Well I’m not going to look at them all here and now, or I’d end up filling a library full of books. But I had a very interesting experience this morning which caused me to reflect on conflict and how it is present in all of us, every day. Here’s what happened.

I came across a report on Twitter about a group of people protesting against the destruction of their village in the West Bank. There were reporters at the village live-tweeting what was happening, and since the Israeli army was present, clearly prepared for an escalation of tension, it seemed appropriate to employ Twitter in what it does best and spread the word. Perhaps some international attention might have a dousing effect on the situation, you never know.

There was some response to my communication, some of which was heartening and some of which was mildly upsetting. Of course you expect that when delving into such a sensitive subject there will be a wide variety of responses, but the difference between expectation and reality is like the difference between seeing a picture of the Niagara Falls and actually standing in the midst of the spray and hearing the massive roar of the water in your ears. In this case, comments of a personal nature were made about me (!), judgements that surprised me, and yes, offended me. Of course I wanted to challenge the assumptions that were made about me, certainly I did…and it took a fair bit of self-consultation to decide not to respond at all. And a fair bit of discipline to stick to the decision.

So that was my own experience of conflict today. And given how much work I had to put into not engaging with one person I had never met before, making completely unfounded judgements about me based on one single tweet, I can’t imagine the scope of work that would be necessary for one society to disengage with another, with all the historical complexity of politics, religion and culture to unpick, never mind the economic implications present in any modern conflict. But I can’t help thinking that without some attempt to help individuals living with conflict to work through their own responses to it, any international negotiations are only pasting over the cracks. Political treaties are important in bringing about peace, yes, but only when drawn up alongside the grassroots work that allows individuals to understand their own place within conflict and how they can contribute to coming out the other side. Where the incentive comes from to engage in such work, well that’s a whole other question…

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.

Taking a break

To those who read this blog, it may have become apparent that the posts have been appearing more and more irregularly and infrequently in the last couple of months. I find the routines of life usually change for me in the autumn; with a new school or nursery start, or new activities at church, there is usually something that affects the rhythm of my days. Within the last week I have confessed to myself that writing this blog has become too difficult for the present, I think for two reasons; firstly, my youngest child is growing out of the afternoon nap phase, which used to give me time to do non-child related things. Secondly I’m working on a project for my church which is likely to take up the majority of my creative capacity at least until the end of January. So I have decided to lay this blog to rest at least for a few months, though I may perhaps come back to it later on.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of looking for the questions that particularly make an impression on me, and working out my own responses in this medium. I hope I have stayed true to my original principle of treating the questions as something to be respected for themselves, not diving straight into the answers as though they are my human right. If I have achieved anything with this blog I hope that it is to have been an encouragement to others to engage with the difficult questions, and to take courage in the absence of answers – especially when sometimes the answer is what we feel we need to survive. I feel that somehow holding on to those questions makes us stronger, more confident and more able to help others who ask the same questions.

With blessings for the road ahead,

Sarah x

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.

Bargain Hunting

The phrase ‘Sale Now On’ is more often present in shop windows than it is absent these days. Apparently, we don’t buy anything unless we’re convinced we’re going to get a bargain – at least, that’s what the advertisers seem to assume. My confession is that these days I live in bafflement at the time, care and attention that some spend on the pursuit of ‘getting a good deal’. Perhaps it’s simply a consequence of having small children, that I’ve got enough to do without trawling round five shops to find the cheapest kettle, or even spending an hour on the internet in the same pursuit, but secretly I think it’s just because I don’t enjoy the process of shopping.  But why would that be? And am I the only one with this dark secret, or are there others hiding in far flung corners of the country? And what is it about the hunt for a good bargain that does interest some people so much?

I think my major difficulty with searching for the best deal is knowing that no matter what I’m trying to buy, I’m being lied to. Oh, probably not overtly (at least most of the time), but in the subtlety of not including quite all of the information about the product, or of emphasising certain qualities relating to it whilst hiding the unfavourable ones. It’s tiring, trying to work through the fog of lies and get to the actual truth about the thing; and it’s insulting to my intelligence to assume I’ll fall for the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect product. Then there are the constant lies about making savings; buy two get one free! Well actually, I only needed one, but now I’m going to pay double the amount of money because it sounds like good value even though I don’t need the extra two.

Last and worst are the lies that are far more personal and deeply influential, because they weave stories about me and the kind of person I am without the product, and what I can become because of buying it. They are powerful and invasive, and can have long-lasting and damaging effects. Can I really only be beautiful if I spend a fortune on a beauty regime? Am I really only a good housewife if my house is as clean and tidy as that one on the television? Is it unattractive to have grey hair? (Of course not!!). Will my family be happier if I take them on that particular holiday? We are subtly led to believe that products are capable of achieving what, in truth, only internal maturity and wisdom can achieve; a healthy, content life and the strength to cope with what storms are thrown at us along the way.

So where does the urge to engage in bargain hunting come from? This question draws me back to the process of bargaining (or haggling, if you will) that used to be the standard form of transaction in the exchange of goods. This changed to a great extent at some point, probably within the last half-century, when fixed prices for stock were introduced (at least in larger retail outlets and chains). Perhaps it had something to do with the introduction of computers to the retail industry – I suspect so, at any rate. But it sometimes almost feels as though the constant sales to which we are enticed are the new form of haggling: we’re starting with this price, but only for fourteen days and then it’ll be selling at a much more reasonable rate because we know so few of you will like that price. In the process of hunting for bargains, therefore, we engage in haggling by choosing whether to purchase the item now or to wait until its price is lowered. Shrewd shoppers will have a good idea of whether or not to buy: I’m afraid I’m not one of them!

Perhaps the inclination to bargain is so deeply rooted in our psyches because it is simply a continuation of something that we have done since before recorded history. Computers have been unable to rid us of our most basic instincts. Of course we look for value in the things that we buy; of course we want to get the best deal for our money; we do it because we want to look after ourselves and also those for whom we are responsible and who we care about. We prefer not to be lied to because it makes the whole thing so much more difficult, but we have to accept that whether simple or complex, whether only about the product or attacking our very sense of identity, the lies will always be present. Learning to discern them and reject the effects they have on us, now that’s the work of a lifetime.