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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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

crowds and the church

Thinking some more about this stuff on the bike today.

We like to go to watch ice-hockey. We join in with the shouts and choruses, celebrate when we win and get moody when we don't.

But the difference between ice hockey and the church is that church isn't supposed to be a spectator sport. There are not supposed to be people who sit in the stands and enjoy the ride. We're all supposed to be in the team.

Maybe that is an unfair analogue. What do you think?

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Quitting church

Having avoided church for most of Lent, I returned yesterday for the Palm Sunday service.

The young people were involved in many aspects of the service. This is almost the only good thing to say about it.

The theme was contrasting Jesus' entry to Pilate's (with him portrayed as a mafia godfather) and then thinking about how we might see these as analogues in our own times.

Now, I have some problems with this and had to leave the building whilst I tried to wrestle with what they were.

First, I don't see any mention of Pilate behaving in this way. I might be missing something, but a service which is meant to be 'about the story' might do better to actually 'be about the story' rather than making up a load of other crap which you'd rather talk about. Please tell me if I have missed something about Pilate in the story which might relate to this service.

Second, and perhaps far more importantly, it totally misses the point of the story. To be fair, I discovered later that the version in John is quite different to that in the other gospels, but this was the version used in the service. In John the sequence is this: Lazarus is raised, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, the people go mad, a couple of people want to meet him, Jesus says some weird stuff and then tells the crowd he is going to die. The crowd get a bit annoyed saying that the messiah isn't allowed to leave and Jesus goes into hiding.

In the other gospels there is an exaggerated discussion of finding the donkey, Jesus does more teaching, turns over tables in the synagogue (which is much earlier in John) and that kind of thing.

Indeed, looking closer at the passage in more detail - I think all the gospels agree on this order: Mary (or someone else) pours expensive perfume over Jesus' feet. Judas thinks this is a waste of money but Jesus rebukes him. Jesus stands in the temple complaining about the way the authorities treat widows and then sees someone in poverty putting all that is left from her life savings into the pot. Jesus then talks about the unimportance of religious buildings. Then Jesus rides into the city on a donkey and the crowd goes celebrity-mad but soon after turn against him.

To me, this is about worship. The only thing that is praised is the waste of expensive perfume. The widow's mite is used as an example of abuse in the temple. Jesus has no truck with the crowd and punctures their overblown celebrations. Something there is saying that worship is precious, expensive, costly. Something is saying that it should not be used to pressurise the weak into doing stupid stuff. Something is saying that the flag-waving misunderstands the nature of the messiah.

So to then use this passage as an opportunity for flag-waving (literally) and suggesting that we should be on the crowd's side rather than Pilates is a step too far. Furthermore it is indicative of the 'me-worship' form of church whereby a bunch of people with comparatively few problems make out that Jesus is just out to make them feel better. No, actually.


Friday, April 03, 2009

the Islamic mirror

Occasionally I am blown away by a library book. This week I randomly picked up a book with a bright yellow cover which looks a little like the kind of trashy cheap fiction I often read.

In spidery letters the title reads "Desperately Seeking Paradise" and underneath in bold cartoon capitals "ZIAUDDIN SARDAR".

Little did I know what was in store. Rather than cheap fiction, this book is the story of Ziauddin Sardar's seeking after the truth. Unsatisfied with the diet of theology and practice he is served at home, Zia journeys after various movements looking for something more in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and more. Frequently he hears Muslims desiring the instillation of Shariah law in their country/culture yet he is convinced that most aspects of Shariah as practiced in modern times have more to do with cultural norms in the Middle Ages (when many of them became accepted as norms for the religion) than Islam and the Koran.

I obviously am not qualified to make any statements about the theology or philosophy of Islam. But what I can say is this: the whole thing sounds scarily familiar.

Many of the philosophical strands I recognise in Christianity. Many of the attitudes expressed about other members of the religion (who might believe something slightly different) are the same. There is the same pressure from people who believe there is a 'correct' form of practice. There is the same malignant, cancerous form of thinking that suggests deviation from the norm is blasphemous and that deep thinking and reason are in opposition to belief.

Even more scarily, some of the language used is exactly the same. Muslims speak of the worldwide community being a body. Many discuss how to develop 'Islamic' science curricula.

And perhaps most strikingly, the Koran teaches that there is no need for a human intermediary between man and God - which is one of the key aspects of Reformation thinking. Yet each Islamic community has its own hierarchy of Mullah, Ayatollahs, scholars, judges - just as Christian communities have bishops, priests, pastors etc.

What is boils down to is that our practices and idiosyncrasies are not so different. In a bizarre form of co-evolution of thought, we've walked down the same theological roads in apparent isolation and developed the same stupid attitudes.

It seems that whilst there are important differences in our baseline religious beliefs, it is hard to see the wood for the trees due to the huge amount of added baggage we've added over hundreds of years. Apologies for the mixed metaphor there.