Saturday, July 11, 2009

do it anyway.

I really like this:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

-this version is credited to Mother Teresa

seen here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

'Britain's biggest charity shop'

Some while ago we noticed the existence of the Newlife Superstore - sometimes described as the biggest charity shop in Britain. I'd recently been discussing charity shops on twitter with @charityshops and others, so thought it was a good opportunity to check it out.

So we planned our attack. Despite Cannock being about 45 minutes away by car, we decided to take the eco option and go by train using the rather excellent Network West Midlands daysaver ticket.

Unfortunately it appears that so few people actually use these tickets, the station ticket office are not aware of them. Cue 10 mins of frustration at Tile Hill station. C'mon Centro, if you want people to buy the tickets, make sure the train companies know they exist!

Anyway, what with a change in Birmingham, the journey was almost doubled. Still, after a bit of a walk on arrival in Cannock we eventually arrived at the Newlife shop.

The layout is similar to TK Maxx - large numbers of rails of clothing with lots of people. Yes, really there were loads of people in a charity shop!

The main difference with any other charity shop is that Newlife accept products from brands because they're not wanted for whatever reason. This arrangement means that Newlife has to remove every label from every piece of clothing they sell. Believe me, that is a lot of labels.

There is clothing everywhere. There is no proper organisation of sizes and styles. When you add in the fact that the labels are removed (and hence it is very hard to tell sizes of things you're looking at), browsing for clothing becomes a major headache. And as a man, there is a small percentage of mens clothing, much mixed haphazardly with the womens. In the end I just gave up.

Good points:

Brave attempt at a different style of charity shop

Bad points:

Massive queues at changing rooms.
Inexplicable £3.50 charge to use the store
Clothing randomly mixed around the store
Lack of labels meaning finding anything is very difficult
Shortage of decent amount of mens clothing
Large number of Newlife websites mean that planning a visit is extremely difficult.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Politics Jesus of The - the theology of Yoda.

I have been reading the amazing book 'The politics of Jesus' by John Howard Yoder (here from Amazon but other online bookshops are available).

I cannot state too strongly at the beginning - this is hard mental strain theology. The book is packed with clinical examination, careful criticism and referenced comments. Indeed, sometimes the pages are more than half full of footnotes which can be very offputting.

OK, that health warning out of the way, the theology is highly charged and dangerous. Yoder's central thesis is that too often the Church and Christianity has sought to minimise the social dimensions of Jesus' ministry in the gospels to the extent that we now are in a position of finding reasons to ignore his direct commands.

For a start, I found two points extremely well argued. First, the dichotomy of the biblical narrative in who actually owns and controls the world. Yoder argues that the essence of the 'right' way of things is divine even when the structures are not. So the notion of laws protecting the innocent are God-given, but the way they are used are not. Further, we constantly find ways to worship these broken structures rather than God who gave them. So for you and I, our faith is more likely to be in things like the NHS, our pensions, job security, social security, dole etc than God. These things are not necessarily bad, but they are not God.

Second, Yoder has some things to say about the stormy relationship many people have with the epistles. He argues that rather than attempting to correct and temper the impression given of the Christ in the gospels, the epistles are actually largely older than the written gospels. Hence the oldest writings are of the heavenly spiritual Christ and this is tempered by the memories of the human Jesus written in the gospels within people's memory.

Further, in an amazingly good point, Yoder demolishes the subsurvient and dominating attitude some derive from reading some of the epistles. Rather than being the 'natural order of things' for women to be under the men, for example, this is written to people who already know that there are no men or women or jew or greek in the body of Christ. Paul's argument then becomes one of encouraging those who now understand that they have self-determination to exercise it with humility, even to the extent of humble submission to men in order to win them over. I cannot equal the force of the argument, but Yoder argues that there would be no point in Paul stating that women, slaves etc were inferior because everything in the societies where they lived was literally screaming that this was so. The radical gospel was the one stating that they were actually equal, spiritual individuals who were empowered to make choices for themselves.

It strikes me that good talking points from this include:

1. In what way are we actually living in submission to the God we profess rather than other earthly structures - other than not at all?

2. If we truly believe that other people are worth as much as we are (and, by the way, isn't it interesting how we conveniently ignore the injunction to 'love each other as I have loved you') it is almost impossible for us to live as we do. For example we would oppose any immigration controls because our poor migrant brethren have as much right to the resources we take for granted as we do. The notion of a nation state would be entirely redundant.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The deserving poor and the undeserving rich

On Sunday we were at a loose end so decided to visit a local National Trust property. For those who don't know, the National Trust is an obsession for the middle-aged middle-classes, and being one of the biggest and wealthiest landowners in the UK is responsible for the upkeep of a large number of historical buildings and large areas of British countryside.

Anyway, we visited one of our most local properties - Packwood House. The story in brief is that a wealthy bloke bought a house at the beginning of the twentieth century which had a debatable historical link to the civil war and his son with the improbable name Graham Baron Ash set about collecting artefacts with which to adorn said building. So it is a twentieth century reproduction of a Tudor building.

Soon after completing this, the building was donated to the nation via the National Trust. I'm not sure of the reason for the donation, but tax and death duty is very likely to come into it.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Sarah Wise's book The Blackest Streets which uncovers life in one of London's nastiest slums at the end of the nineteenth century. Lying in an area between some of the busiest roads, it was a dark network of paths - too narrow to even be described as roads - and appalling housing.

At the time, there was the idea floating around of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, the latter being thieves, drunkards and the lazy. This distinction was important, as the Victorian conscience demanded protection of the deserving from the weight of poverty. Uncovering a classic example of Orwellian double-think, Sarah Wise exposes the truth. Those charged with improving the health and sanitation of those who lived in the darkness were the same people who had least to gain from improvements because they were involved in the chain of house rents imposed on the residents. And, it turns out, those who ultimately owned the land were some of the nation's most wealthy individuals, literally acting as parasites on the poor. They claimed to be interested in the morality of the poor (which seemed to be largely about being publicly aghast about lax sexual behaviour, drunkenness etc, vices which are hardly exclusive to the poorest) whilst at the same time were those involved in creating the conditions which forced people to live in this squalor. These places were dens of vice and crime. But they were also places where people worked ridiculously hard to make ends meet, where people fought tooth and claw against the system which seemed to inevitably lead to a spiral of poverty leading to death in the workhouse. Indeed, at several points, those comfortable living members of the ruling classes sought to reduce the meagre social safety net payments to 'encourage the poor to work'.

So we have on one side the 'deserving rich' who are lauded for having saved a load of artefacts for the nation using some un-named source of wealth. On the other, we have the 'undeserving poor' who lived unbelievably bad lives making matchboxes and other poorly paid piecerate work whose lives amounted for so little that when the slums were cleared they were instantly forgotten and their names added to the mountain of bodies at the Somme.

Whilst the slums might have gone from London, the attitude remains. We are constantly bombarded by rich people finding ever more imaginative ways to throw pennies to the poor. We imagine that we are justified to live our lives of leisure and prosperity because 'we have worked hard for it and deserve it'. We try to convince ourselves that we should lead lives of 'positivity', patting ourselves on the back for doing things which in the final analysis amount to very little indeed.

The elephant in the room is that we are responsible for the structural sin that allows people like you and me to live lives of excess whilst other people have lives which amount to almost nothing. The theology of 'original sin' is unfashionable because people don't want to believe that people can be condemned before they've actually done anything.

But the truth is fairly easy to see. Most societies spiral into injustice whereby the few are supported by the poverty of the many. We live as we do because others live in poverty.

Unfortunately for us, justice eventually prevails. We're living on borrowed time.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

church and politics

Last weekend I was reading about how the majority of the Christian church capitulated in Germany as the Nazis took control. Ironic, perhaps, that we then sat in church on Sunday to hear the preacher praise the 'Christian' president.

Obama is clearly not Hitler. But still.


Friday, May 08, 2009

the heart

Last weekend we ventured into a local Baptist church. I was quite different to anything that we've recently experienced - for a start, nobody spoke to us. At all. Which is OK because we didn't really want to have to explain ourselves for the nth time. Just unusual.

Anyway, in a long and rambling sermon, the preacher was talking about where in the body the bible speaks of things happening. For example, whilst we tend to imagine passions and emotions happening in the heart, the bible talks of them happening in the guts and the bowels. Which makes a bit of sense when you think about it, the guts being rather tense in stressful situations and so on.

In contrast, he was saying that the heart is the place where you will things. So you might believe things academically in your brain, you might feel things in your guts, but you are moved by the will of your heart. This is the deepest place of my being which moves me to the extent of affecting the rest of my life.

Which is an interesting reflection in an otherwise rather tedious service.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

the sweetest words

I have recently been learning a low-cost way to print t-shirts and have been really impressed with the results. As part of my learning, I decided to produce a range of t-shirt prints inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The bastard child of two world wars, the UDHR sits as a strange legal-but-not-legal philosophy of the United Nations. Widely flouted, widely ignored and unenforceable it might be, but it remains some of the most powerful words to come out of the twentieth century.

As an avowed secularist, I think we could do far worse than regularly consider the implications of the UDHR, perhaps encompassed by Article 1:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Despite what my society tries to tell me, there is no human rubbish. No trailer trash. No worthless pond scum. My worth is not measured in pounds sterling. The poorest person in Sierra Leone might not have a house, a car, enough food and the other innumerable things I take for granted, but he is worth the same as me. He is as much a person as I am. We are brethren, whether we recognise it or not.

More than that - nobody, NOBODY has a divine right to rule over others. Don't ask me to vote for you because of your religion or lack of it, because the answer will be no. Power corrupts, especially unearned power. Your title and position means nothing to me.

But in some ways, the clipped tones of the UDHR sound terribly unhelpful and ambitious. It is one thing to recognise that people have an inherent worth and rights which cannot be taken away from them, but it is another thing to know what to do with that information when a large percentage of the population of the world is deprived of those same rights.

We are tempted to focus on ourselves, our rights, our self worth. We are tempted to campaign vigorously (perhaps violently) when we perceive that they are taken away. Unfortunately the uncomfortable truth is that we do not need to assert these rights. On a world scale, we have no idea what is torture, or police brutality. To pretend that actions which the state does against our protests is in any way reminiscent of the abuses that go on elsewhere is entirely fallacious. For one thing, people recognise and complain in our country. Accidents and deaths which occur at the hands of officials are investigated by the media if nobody else. Even Guantanamo - which lies at the far end of acceptable behaviour of a free state - is not forgotten.

Please hear me - these things are not unimportant. We should take these things seriously, particularly when the actions by our state and institutions betray obvious inconsistencies and hypocrisies. But how much more seriously should we take the facts that in countries where police brutality really exists people just disappear? Where deaths are common, unremarkable, unreported and not investigated? Gandhiji said that we should be constantly considering the effect of our actions on the poorest person we knew. Unfortunately, I've met some very poor people who are unaffected by more than 90% of our campaigning, which has more to do with us than them.

Rather than constantly harping on about slights to our perception of our own human rights, we should be concerned far more with those who have nothing resembling rights. Instead of loudly complaining about our 'Freedom of Speech' we should be speaking up for those who are not able to complain.

Whilst these things were buzzing around in my head on the bike earlier, I couldn't help but also think of words from my own religious community. The Sermon on the Mount contains one of the most ignored parts of Christian scripture. Perhaps for some of the same reasons I've mentioned above - it seems so far-fetched and, in some ways, highly offensive.

Matthew 5:

1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The poor are clearly not blessed - they're kicked around, treated as if they are worthless, ignored, vilified and treated as subhuman.

But wouldn't it be amazing if people actually lived as if they believed this. What kind of a world would it be when a group of people decided that the most holy, most valuable people were the smelliest, smallest, ignored, forgotten people on the planet? When they desired interaction with these people because they recognised that they were blessed and that some of the blessing might rub off on those whom the world considers to be worthy. That holiness is not to be measured by how many titles you have, how often you visit holy places, which special words you use - but simply by how you interact with 'the least of these'.

I think that is a really profound and beautiful idea.

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