straw men & brick follies | the EU Referendum and why religion doesn’t have a monopoly on control by irrational fear 

1 06 2016

Critics of the religious and our history tend to point to a chequered history of control by fear. Invent a fear, give it a godly theme or a loose Biblical basis, and just keep on repeating it. Through that you will have control.

Rational 21st century people, who have discarded such medieval notions, don’t think like that anyone. We deal in facts, figures, not the straw men and brick follies of invented fears.


Folly’s are so last century. Aren’t they?

Or. Do we? The EU referendum – or rather, the political posturing around it – appears to show that the religious don’t have a monopoly on control by irrational fear after all. The modern-day priests, people of a privileged caste who serve the god Economy, are prepared to say almost anything that will whip up enough fear among the common peasants in order to prevent them overthrowing the Lord of the Manor, who generously keeps the church Westminster in business.

I cannot excuse the history of my own faith, nor sometimes that we still control by fear. But one good thing about the decline in religious adherence is a near obliteration of the over-confidence by which the church controlled people. Many in the church (especially my own brand the Church of England) haven’t yet noticed that the majority of people don’t notice us, let alone listen to us, anymore. So we have been humbled into realising we cannot control people, and actually that is not what we should have been about anyway.

What we have to do instead is give people vision, hope, something to look to. Because whilst our influence and control has waned, our passion for our message hasn’t. Gone are the days of shouting the ‘turn or burn’ on street corners, hijacking Old Testament prophets or Jesus or Paul for our own purposes. Here are the days of Healing on the Streets and Prayer for Sutton and Food Banks and Debt Counselling and playgroups and coffee mornings and listening to people and living whole lives of hopefulness.

Meanwhile we look on in dismay as our leading politicians go all medieval on us, shouting on street corners wearing sandwich boards with misquoted scripture economics taken out of context to serve their own purpose. It should make us smug, to see how far they have fallen from hope to fear, these priests of privilege. But it doesn’t.

It just makes us weep for what could be so much better.


education is about learning life, not becoming productive economic units

30 04 2015

People are not economic units. One reason we are so disengaged from politics is because almost every subject is reduced to economic units. Schools, homes, families, work – everything becomes about its economic merits. Low-income families are described as ‘benefit units‘, family homes are assets, and perhaps worst of all, education is described as in this local Tory party election leaflet as a

…system which prepares young people for work so that they can compete and win in today’s competitive world.”

Reading that, the rest of the political rhetoric falls into place. I know that will appeal to a certain type, and I know that one of the aims of education is that people have the skills for work at the end. But if the sole – or even main – aim of education is work-preparation to win in the competition of life, I think we are presenting an incredibly shallow, and dangerous, ideology. And for that matter, theology. 

Thankfully, there are few who are actually involved in education who subscribe to this harsh economic view. Teachers and teaching assistants and lunchtime supervisors and heads, they all know that they are preparing children and young people for life, not just for work. They are working alongside families to raise good citizens, community members, who alongside becoming adults and parents and scout leaders and athletes and musicians and friends and maybe even politicians, may also become employed. 

Our value as human beings cannot and should not ever be limited to our economic potential. The value of our education system cannot and should not ever be limited to its ability to produce workers. If so, what is the point in learning about volcanoes or Henry VIII or vascular bundles or philosophy? And that becomes pertinent as we see this government narrowing the curriculum, the side-lining of ‘non-core’ subjects, the repeated mantra of students no longer taught to read around subjects, but simply to ask “Do I need to know this for the exam?” 

I loved my time in the education system, or as normal people call it, school. I learned loads, about subjects yes, but mostly about how to be a person. And I was prepared for work by going out to work. From 13 I helped my brother do his paper round (he got the pounds, I got the pennies), from 16 I had a Saturday job in a hotel, in the holidays I worked in plastics factories and Boots and making fishing tackle. 

That prepared me for work like nothing else. If we want our young people to have good jobs, then we need an all-round education system that, alongside families, helps them become good, well-rounded people. That is what I see most teachers passionate about, when I am in schools doing lessons and lunch clubs, when I am dealing with the SENCO in my son’s school, on committees or governors and dealing with actual people, rather than economic-theorists-in-offices.  

What we don’t want is a system designed by, and intended to produce more of, the finance-obsessed bankers and politicians who worked together to produce the economic crash, which turned out to be a competition in which they were the only winners. Because when you present life as a competition, you by default place more value on the ‘winners’, therefore less on the ‘losers’.

And who are the ‘losers’, in this system? *awkward pause*

The radical nature of Jesus’s teaching is that we are valued because we are children of God, whether female or male, slave or free, productive or non-productive, educated or not. We are never just economic units integrated into God’s business, but children adopted into his family, with a mandate to love and to serve. Not win. 

Thank God for that, and thank God it’s teachers young people spend time with, not political policy-writers. 

unexpectedly political values | being taken advantage of

26 04 2015

In this world of Katie Hopkins-style vindictiveness and politicians’ obsession with only supporting “hard-working families”, I know I’m onto a loser with this next in the series of ‘unexpectedly political values’: being taken advantage of. advantage Is that even a value? Isn’t it a bit… negative? Well, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, which is actually about humiliation not fighting. When you are slapped on your right cheek, it is because you have received a publicly humiliating back-handed slap. So to turn the left cheek means intentionally offering yourself more humiliation. Being taken advantage of.

Jesus said if a soldier taken your cloak, give him your coat also. This is in military dictatorship. They didn’t ask, they demanded, and even if it was your only cloak, you complied. Jesus says offer more. Be taken advantage of. In these times, with vindictive welfare cuts and Mediterranean boat people and a continuous attempt to hold tightly to what is ours at all costs, we need to learn from Jesus.

To be taken advantage of. On purpose.

How does this work out in practice? Take Foodbanks – people have said to me, don’t people take advantage of it? My response: yes, some will. But it is worth it for those that don’t. Take the welfare system. People say some will take advantage. My response: yes, some will. But it is worth it for those that don’t. Take the tax system. Won’t some take advantage? Yes, but we don’t stop the system because of that. 

When the young people would hang out on the church roof and we befriended them, there were times they took advantage of our kindness. But we were ok with that, because it was worth it for the times they didn’t. The same goes for being the local drop-in for a hundred different things, as I talked about in knock knock, with this selection of items we’ve been asked for:

string for conkers / stamps / broadband / cookies / postman’s wee-stop / trampoline storage / trampoline usage / duct tape / brownies / a football / puncture repair / advocacy / fixing up a gate post / cushions / banter / first aid / Facebook / umbrella / a step ladder / laundry / a garden fork / oranges / downloading Enrique Iglesias / telephoning social services / a shower / odd jobs / water / a lift in the rain / a youth club / Nesquik / time

It is an unexpectedly political value to accept being taken advantage of. It doesn’t often feel noble or heroic. Usually it just feels like being taken advantage of. But the Jesus we follow was taken advantage of, and did not retaliate. In fact, he voluntarily gave his advantage away. There’s a challenge. 

Will we allow ourselves to do the same? Will we give our advantage away? Or are we too proud, or too scared of what we might lose…

Other posts in this series of unexpectedly political values:
introduction: the values vacuum

a hustings in search of hope

21 04 2015

Our local election hustings (Carshalton and Wallington) was in many ways a great success: 5 candidates, over 350 people, well hosted by St Helier Radio and organised by local vicar Warner Pidgeon. It was well-behaved, a few heckles, nothing serious. What was serious, though, was a lack of vision, of hope, of imagination. 

today I shall wear grey

today I shall wear grey

They are from left to right: Tom Brake MP (LD), Matthew Maxwell-Scott (Con), host David Blackmore from Radio St Helier, Ross Hemingway (Green), Siobhan Tate (Lab), Bill Main-Ian (UKIP). 

As a local resident on the St Helier estate, and vicar of the parish with one of the highest levels of deprivation in the borough, I am interested in hope. I am interested in what these people say they are going to do for those at the bottom of the pile, those who can’t speak for themselves, who are not part of the vested interests or corporate power struggles. What I want to hear from them at a hustings is their vision for the future. I went home disappointed. 

I played 2 games of bingo, won one lost one. The first was ‘blame’ bingo, in which the past is blamed for the present, e.g. ‘the mess the previous government left us in’. Tom Brake and Matthew Maxwell Scott revelled in that one, especially the latter. When your vision-setting begins with an excuse, I’m afraid you don’t inspire hope, especially when your government has made things worse for working-poor.  

The second bingo was ‘immigration bingo’, which happily I lost. It wasn’t really mentioned, even by UKIPs Bill Main-Ian, who I christened “32 Bill”, as all problems can apparently be solved with the £32 billion saved by leaving the EU. 32 Bill spent that money at least 5 times in the evening, solving education, the NHS, and housing with it, because clearly in his world the only thing that solves problems is money. And lots. Of. Pauses. 

Siobhan Tate, a teacher, also didn’t excel in her presentation, but did at least draw people’s attention to Tom Brake’s bizarre ‘Save St Helier’ petition, which has been going for years, but it addressed to nobody, and is never handed in. It is not clear who  he is saving it from, or for what, but it looks good for an MP to save a hospital. Meanwhile she claimed he votes for anti-democratic NHS policies.

Siobhan Tate and Ross Hemingway were the only candidates who seemed aware that austerity isn’t working; that the poor are being blamed by the ruling parties; and that St Helier is an area of great need. However, Matthew Maxwell-Scott got away with mentioning the ‘economically illiterate and morally wrong‘ (Daily Telegraph!) expansion of ‘right-to-buy’ to Housing Association properties without being challenged at all on this.

St Helier's silver lining

St Helier’s silver lining

As a floating voter, with a leaning to the left, an interest in the fair distribution of wealth and resources, and a strong incentive to look out for our neighbours, whoever they may be, this hustings left me with these impressions:

Tom Brake MP: Tom is local and likeable, with a good following; however, his hospital campaign is wearing thin, the coalition links him with the worst of Tory politics. I think he is trusting in people preferring the status quo than voting for anyone else. He didn’t cast vision, but was confident he didn’t need to. 

Matthew Maxwell-Scott: sells himself as as local, energetic, smiley and committed, but by supporting selling of social housing and not replacing it, presumably that energy does include protecting the poor on our side of Carshalton. An identikit Tory candidate, still blaming Labour for anything he can find, he didn’t inspire confidence, though he did at least have passion. But being passionate about being passionate smacks of Cameron’s empty ideology. 

Ross Hemingway: the stand-out candidate for me at this event, he had passion and enthusiasm, he challenged the status-quo of current politics, and included broader things such at TTiP. He clearly had an agenda to get across, and did this whatever the questions were about. Whether the Greens have the ability or costings to implement their policies is a big question, but their increased visibility in this election is absolutely A Good Thing for the challenge and breath of fresh air it brings. 

Sioban Tate: Siobhan came across well as one who would represent the area, with good local and work experience. She challenged Tom Brake on the NHS, Matthew Maxwell-Scott on standing up to corporate interests, and the government on their Education policies. She had clearly done her research, but was let down by her presentation, which meant she didn’t inspire confidence if faced with a bigger parliamentary situation. 

Bill Main-Ian: 32 Bill did not come across well at all. Despite the size of their manifesto, UKIP are a one-trick pony and this was clear, as he didn’t have a clear answer to anything at all. Except the £32 billion. 

Sadly, this debate suffered from being the last in a series of 8 or 9 hustings, which meant the candidates has done this  many times before. And it showed. Although not in being a faultless and clearly-presented argument. Which in itself is strange. Practice makes… worse?

I think it was an indication of what is being demonstrated around the country, as pointed out by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian today: that the three main questions in this election are simply being ignored. They are:

How are we meant to live?
Where are we meant to live?
And who is meant to live here?

Only Ross Hemingway attempted to cast a vision for how we are to live; everyone else was just rearranging the furniture.

Maybe it’s the preacher in me,  but I want somebody to cast a vision for a society in which all are able to play a part, in which wealth and resources are fairly distributed, and where we take responsibility for those around us. I want somebody to talk about care and compassion and community and actually mean it, not just a cover-up for accountancy in favour of the wealthy. Our society is selfish, and getting moreso. We need our leaders to lead us into selflessness.  

The status quo is not ok. I am not ok with ok. Politics should be better than this. The only way that change is if we get involved.    

unexpectedly political values | resurrection

2 04 2015

The resurrection is massively political; there can be no greater political statement than the Christian belief in the physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Somehow though this has become de-politicized, neutered, made insipid; somehow the resurrection has become like an afterthought, a happy ending tacked on to make the story better that we can ignore if we prefer.

Some of that is from fear. We can talk confidently and politically about Jesus life and ministry, his words about love and peace and justice and money, even about kingdoms; and we can talk of his death, his sacrifice. But his resurrection provokes accusations of insanity, of one step too far; bringing personal irrationally-held beliefs into the public sphere.

resurrection - a metaphor

So it becomes a metaphor. His death becomes just solidarity with suffering; the resurrection just a symbol of hope – the power of ideas – triumphing over adversity. Which is not wrong. But it’s like saying winning the Champions League was a good chance to make the stadium grass look nice. It may be true, but isn’t the point.

The resurrection, as early Christians understood it, means that God cares deeply about creation, his creation, which includes humans and plants and animals and guilt and death and sweat and zero hours contracts and laughter and banking.

The resurrection was God re-creating, making new; taking the stuff that makes life stink, symbolised in Adam and the creation/fall story, and putting it to death, killing it dead, full stop; then re-birthing, re-newing; Jesus Christ as the first-fruit of the new world in which humans and plants and animals and all that are made whole, holy; death defeated, the stink gone, the new come. We live in that world.

The resurrection of Jesus shows sin cannot win. It also shows the pagan Roman empire it cannot win. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or Herod or capitalism or the economy or ISIS. They can defeat humans, but they cannot defeat the creator and new-creator. When I place my hope in the risen Jesus of Nazareth, I am not embracing a philosophy of kindness, a nice way of life; I am embracing a politics in which local politics comes second-place to God. There’s a challenge.

Here’s another. The resurrection is political because Jesus first appeared to the society’s little people: women, working men, nobody’s. He wasn’t mistaken for a king, but a labourer. Placed at the centre of God’s plan to shake up the powerful are the very people the powerful would ignore.

So the Christian politic has to place them at the centre. It cannot be a politics of dominance, but a politics that embraces prostitutes and adulterers and tax-evaders and wealthy land-owners and poor zero-hours workers and sees the same darkness in all of us, no matter what our status; and promises the same resurrection to all of us, no matter what our status.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an historical truth, not a metaphor; it is deeply political event, not just a happy ending; it is about God transforming this world, not us escaping from it; if we truly understand it, we cannot help but be changed. 

Provocative Resurrection
I wrote this before I read David Cameron’s article with his (very common) misunderstanding of the heart of the Christian message, and this reaction.  


unexpectedly political values | confession

1 04 2015

When you know you have mucked up; when you know One who will take that burden from you; when you know the one who sees all things has seen your life and still says come; when you can no longer live the lie of 21st century consumers trampling on others and just need release; then, confession.

It may sound a bit religious, granted. But the value of living a life in confession cannot be underestimated.

Confession demands humility, you see. And humility means no longer lording it over others, no longer blaming others but taking responsibility for your own cock-ups. Taking responsibility, owning up, confession. This is the stuff of liberation. Freedom. New life. Confession leads to restart, reboot; confession means owning up and asking for help – help! – in not repeating the same negative patterns. It’s repentance, lived out. 


Thinking politically, this takes me to those who hold the money and the power; those in the financial industry who gambled and lost the country’s money; those who rewarded themselves grossly, yet when it all went belly up have taken no responsibility.

It takes me to the interconnected politicians who have fed the public the lie that the poor are to blame and must face the consequences. Who have moved discussion away from Hedge Fund Street to Benefits Street; and a media who have colluded, joined in, protected their own interests.

Confession says we mucked up, we take responsibility; we’re the grown-ups, we can look you in the eye and apologise. Confession is not just me in my little world; or us in our church; confession is an unexpectedly political value that could bind society together, rich and poor, strong and weak; confession says we’re genuinely a community, in humility, under God, who sees all things, knows all things, loves all things.

Confession is and could be an integral part of life, lived as community, in humility, together. If we want that. 

unexpectedly political values | redemption

29 03 2015

When you believe anyone and everyone is loved by God, and he would willingly adopt them into his family; when you know Jesus saw nobody as beyond hope; when his very name means ‘the Lord saves’; then, hope; then, redemption.   

Good theory. For good people. In practice? Let’s think politics. Justice. Hope for the convicted criminal? Redemption for the perpetual reoffender stuck in HMP Revolving Door? Aren’t they just criminals?

Is the addict who reoffends to steal for drugs a criminal by nature? No. They are addicted. Take away the addiction, they no longer need to steal. For example.


Redemption means we see cause, not just effect; a victim, not just perpetrator; a son, not just a criminal. Out-working redemption theology in political practice, this means not consistently criminalising. It means early intervention. It means good long-term support. Proper probation.

Speak ‘son, not ‘criminal’. Or daughter, of course. 

This isn’t going soft on crime. Early intervention is not soft; it’s hard, it’s labour intensive, it involves treating people as people, not cattle or economic entities. But for those for whom money is the overriding value, it’s cheaper in the long run. 

So. Sure Start centres. Social services. Youth provision. Early intervention. All unused with hope. And the easiest to cut. But theologically unjustifiable. 

Redemption: an unexpectedly political value. 

This is part of a mini-series looking at values in the run-up to the election.

the values vacuum

22 03 2015

The person or people or God you look up to, value, worship; that is where your own core values are likely to come from. We build up on those fundamentals as we develop our own thinking. 

Maybe it is the self-made rags-to-riches kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; and so commend, approve, and emulate. Hardwork, financial success, personal gain, self-improvement, becoming something from nothing. Sacrifice, for personal gain.   

Or maybe its the self-made riches-to-rags kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; then what we commend, approve and emulate might look very different. Self-giving, personal loss, uneconomical generosity, becoming nothing from something. Sacrifice for someone else’s gain. 

Two polar opposites, to make a point. 

values vacuum

My core values come from who I believe God to be. God, as the creator and foundation of everything, including me; his character deeply influences mine. Forms mine. God who does not clutch power like a toddler; God who made himself nothing (Phil 2.6-7); God who endured humiliation. My internal script, my blueprint, my drivenness; they honour and respect this type of God, as revealed in Jesus, who entered the community he cared for, lived in it, listened to it (John 1.14), died for it, rose again for it.

Where do yours come from? Certainly not from a neutral vacuum. 

These values necessarily affect our politics. They have to. And maybe in unexpected ways. Because unlike our current politicians obsession with tiny variations in numbers, being £700 better or worse off over a year does not override all other values. Because of our values, we may have to make political choices that do not directly benefit us, which goes against the visionless politics of ‘what’s best for me’.

Can we do that?  I plan to explore some of these over the next few weeks, putting out questions and challenges to myself, and maybe to you.    

speaking in circles

13 03 2015

We – the church – do not always say it well; we do not always say it to the right people; we do not always say it at the right time;  we don’t always say it coherently; but we do say it. Honest.  

Speaking in Circles

We – the church – are deeply involved and engaged in so many issues in our local and national and international communities, and speak out and act consistently on a wide range of issues. Many of these do not fit the media narrative, so are ignored, culminating in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy  of the church only speaking about certain things, then being criticised for only speaking about certain things… speaking in circles, anyone? 

Find out more about what the church actually speaks about here:

Archbishop of Canterbury
Church of England
Joint Public Issues Team (Baptist, Methodists, URC, Church of Scotland)
Theos Think Tank
London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
Archbishop Cranmer/God and Politics
Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (Canon Andrew White)
Stop the Traffik 

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list!  

a christmas theology of political power

9 12 2014

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. The Chancellor’s Christmas Budget Autumn Statement, along with A Theology of the Autumn Statement, got me thinking about this.

There is a theology that lies behind everything we do. Everything we do stands on the foundation of what we believe about God, and what we believe God believes about us. So in politics, where different beliefs about God or not-God or many gods permeates through each MP, the policies that they choose to support cannot help but be affected by their theology. And by implication, they represent us, so their theology represents ours. 

I believe there is a dangerous narrative running through our politics and media that deeply challenges a Christian theology. A narrative of power, of blame, of self-protection and short-term thinking. Christian theology – and more importantly, Christians – are flawed and broken and get it wrong, so forgive me some optimism in what follows:

  1. Christian theology shows that God does not prioritise those with money and power. God chose foreigners of a different religion and the lowest earners to be the first to see the incarnate Son of God. This is a familiar story but matters. Christian theology must not prioritise those on ‘our side’ with money and power. King Herod was so cross and felt so threatened by this that he killed babies. Christian theology should be threatening to those with money and power.  
  2. Christian theology shows God does not just blame everyone else. Not the previous government, or poor people who receive benefits, or immigrants, or anything other than our own people. Rarely do we hear ‘we’ have messed up, people like me, the wealthy, white, middle/upper classes, those who needed a bank bail-out. Christian theology begins and ends with repentance, with humility. God did not simply blame humans for mucking up his world, but became incarnate to be part of the solution, not the bully-king but the servant-king. Christian theology confidently says we mucked up and we spend our lives being the solution. 
  3. Christian theology shows us that God’s priority is not self-protection. A tiny newborn baby human is one of the weakest living things. The Christmas story practically screams self-giving and sacrificial generosity at us. We have assumed, in our society, a culture of entitlement, and so we expend masses of time/energy/money defending that entitlement, protecting our wealth. God gave away his power, gave away his story to the weakest of humans and the most insignificant of human families. Christian theology holds lightly and gives generously. 
  4. Christian theology shows long-term thinking. I guess if God could make a baby he could make a grown-up. He chose not to. He chose the long game. A long set-up, a community growing, a lifestyle change, not a quick-fix. Our politics demands short-term solutions to a long-term problem. 

When I hear of more cuts to the welfare budget, I wonder what theology lies behind that? When I hear positive employment figures trotted out, but businesses do not pay a wage you can live on, what theology lies behind that? When the only profitable rail network is nationally-owned, but sold to the private sector again, what theology lies behind that? When years of struggle for employment rights is extinguished with zero-hours contracts, what theology lies behind that?

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. Let’s not lose that.

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