Monday, 28 April 2014

For Jews the cross is a symbol of oppression

Few ideas can have inspired more murderousness than the idea that Jews were the Christ-killers

Giles Fraser                                      Guardian/UK                                 25 April 2014

Jesus wasn't a Christian – that word exists for his followers and came later. He was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. He was circumcised as a Jew. He pretty much followed the Jewish law, departing from it only in the name of what he saw as its deeper meaning. "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished," he insisted at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Sure, he debated furiously with the Pharisees and Sadducees, especially about the significance of the temple. And, in time, this argument came to be restyled by Jesus' gentile followers as an attack upon Jews per se. But originally it was an internal debate within Judaism, not an attack upon Jews from the outside. In was an internal debate in the same way that the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, such as Jeremiah, often attacked the priests of the temple for missing the point.

It is a horrible irony, then, that Christianity bears primary responsibility for historic antisemitism. Few ideas can have been as poisonous as, and inspired more murderousness than, the idea that Jews were the Christ-killers. Of course, only the Romans had the legal authority to crucify someone: it was their signature way of dealing with troublemakers. But this fact became historically inconvenient for a religion that was eventually to place its global headquarters within Rome itself.

Evangelical Christians have long used a quote from the book of Isaiah to explain the meaning of Jesus's death on the cross: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we were healed." The idea here is that Jesus's death is a punishment by God for human wickedness. He pays the price of human sin on our behalf. This understanding of what Christians mean by salvation – known technically as penal substitutionary atonement – was actually unknown in the early church, though some Christians seem to think it is the only way of understanding the cross. They ignore the fact that it transforms God into some sort of psychopath who murders his own son as a magical way of dealing with endemic human wickedness.

Even in terms of Christian theology, penal substitution is a mistake, not least because it doesn't give the resurrection any work to do in the economy of human salvation. Indeed, there are multiple other readings of the cross, which do not rely on this payback model but, out of respect, I am not going to go into that here. While Christians regard the cross as an inevitable part of human salvation, for Jews it remains a symbol of centuries of oppression. And the right and proper Christian response to this is a confession of complicity, not a trumpeting of theological superiority.

Twitter: @giles_fraser [Abridged]

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Iranian mother who spared her son's killer:

'Vengeance has left my heart'

Samereh Alinejad tells the Guardian she had no intention of sparing her son's killer, Balal, until the moment she asked for the noose to be removed from his neck

Saeed Kamali Dehghan                                  Guardian/UK 25                             April 2014

Abdollah Hosseinzadeh was stabbed and killed in a street brawl in the autumn of 2007 when he was only 18. He had known his killer, Balal. The two, barely out of their teens at the time, had played football together. Abdollah was the second son Alinejad had lost, her youngest died as a boy in a motorbike accident when he was 11. Furious in her grief, she was determined Balal would hang.

But as Balal's execution date drew nearer, Abdollah appeared to his mother in a series of vivid dreams. "Ten days before the execution was due, I saw my son in a dream asking me not to take revenge, but I couldn't convince myself to forgive," she told the Guardian. Speaking by phone from Iran's northern Mazandaran province, Alinejad said she had no intention of sparing Balal's life until the moment she asked for the noose to be removed from his neck. Her last-minute pardon was a remarkable act of humanity that moved hearts across Iran – and the world – but it took Alinejad by surprise as much as it did Balal, his relatives and her own family.

A stream of relatives, her brother and her mother, flowed through her house the night before the execution. Painfully aware of the grief she had carried in the seven years since her son was killed, none of them attempted to change her mind. "I stood very firm in my belief that I want him punished, so they didn't expect me to forgive." As Abdollah's legal guardian, Alinejad's husband Abdolghani had the power under Iranian law to overturn the death penalty, but he had relinquished that responsibility to his wife.

"We couldn't sleep that night, we were all awake until morning. Until the last minute, I didn't want to forgive. I had told my husband just two days before that I can't forgive this man, but maybe there would be a possibility, but I couldn't persuade myself to forgive." Alinejad had been assured: "My husband said, look to God and let's see what happens."

In the early hours of last Tuesday, Alinejad was outside the gates of Nour prison, among the crowd gathered for Balal's execution. "You have the final say, my husband had said," she recalled. "He said you've suffered too much, we'll do as you say."

After recitation from the Qur'an was read, prison guards had hooked a rope around Balal's neck as he stood on a chair blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. Iran's Islamic penal code allows the victim's heir – "walli-ye-dam" – to personally execute the condemned man as Qisas(retribution) – in this case by pushing away the chair he was standing on.

Seconds away from what could have been his final breath, Balal pleaded for his life and called out for mercy. "Please forgive," he shouted, "if only for my mum and dad," Alinejad recalled. "I was angry, I shouted back how can I forgive, did you show mercy to my son's mum and dad?"

Balal's fate then took an unexpected turn. Alinejad clambered up on a stool and rather than pushing away his chair, slapped him across the face.

"After that, I felt as if rage vanished within my heart. I felt as if the blood in my veins began to flow again," she said. "I burst into tears and I called my husband and asked him to come up and remove the noose." Within seconds, as Abdolghani unhooked the rope from Balal's neck, he was declared pardoned.

Balal's mother Kobra, sobbing, reached across the fence separating the crowd from the execution site, and embraced Alinejad before reaching to kiss her feet – a gesture of respect and gratitude. "I didn't allow her to do that, I took her arm and made her stand up … she was just a mother like me, after all."

Arash Khamoushi, a photographer for Iranian news agency Isna, captured the extraordinary scene in a series of pictures that flooded internet sites, newspapers and television sets across the world. Among the most poignant images is of the mothers, facing each other for the first time, holding one another in their arms. "She was extremely happy, it was as if someone had given her wings to fly," Alinejad said. Hours later, after sparing one woman's child, she went to visit her own son's grave.

Abdollah was brought up in a religious family. Alinejad is a housewife, Abdolghani is a retired labourer who works as football coach in the local club where both Abdollah and Balal used to play. Having lost both their sons, the couple now have only their daughter. Balal remains in jail. A victim's family can only save a killer's life, they can't lift a jail sentence, which is at the discretion of the judiciary in Iran, which has the worst record for executions worldwide after China.

Alinejad has not spoken to Balal's family other than when they met at Nour prison. "I didn't utter a single word to them in all these years, nor complain directly about why their son killed mine," she said. "But they're in touch with our relatives.

"Balal was naive. He didn't want to kill, it wasn't in his nature, he was angry in seconds and had a knife in his hand."

Finding herself suddenly a figure of inspiration for people across the world, Alinejad has one lesson she hopes her tragedy will help others to learn: "For young people not to carry knives when they're going out. When they kill a person, they don't just kill that person, mums and dads die too as a result."

She is pleased, she said, so many people were happy with her decision: "I'm glad when people now call me their mum."

One week after pardoning Balal, Alinejad has found a peace lost since her son's death. "Losing a child is like losing a part of your body. All these years, I felt like a moving dead body," she said. "But now, I feel very calm, I feel I'm at peace. I feel that vengeance has left my heart."

Thursday, 24 April 2014

One ayatollah's stand for the Baha'i gives me great hope for Iran

The imam's gift to a persecuted community is part of a growing trend of Iranians championing the rights of fellow citizens

Ibrahim Mogra                      Guardian/UK                             21 April 2014

News from Iran has given me tremendous hope and optimism for peace between Iranians, regardless of faith and ethnicity. Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent imam and scholar, has taken a stand for coexistenc with the country's Baha'i minority. He has reminded us that Islam is a religion of peace that recognises diversity of every kind as part of God's design for his creation. And it all came in the form of a gift – one which I am proud to endorse.

For many, Iran is synonymous with persecution and oppression. Iran's authorities routinely target ethnic and religious minorities, human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals. And the case of the Baha'is is emblematic of these broader violations.

The Baha'is are Iran's largest religious minority with 300,000 followers. For decades they have been arbitrarily detained, denied education and livelihood, harassed, vilified in the media, and executed. Hundreds were killed after the 1979 revolution. More than 130 Baha'is are currently in prison on false charges. Seven former leaders are serving 20-year jail terms, just for tending to the basic needs of their community. Baha'is have no legal protection as a minority because their faith is not recognised under the constitution.

Such a violent backdrop makes Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani's gift all the more remarkable. A trained calligrapher and painter, the ayatollah has produced a large illuminated work of art featuring passages from the writings of Baha'u'llah, the 19th-century founder of the Baha'i faith. "Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God," reads the inscription. "Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpowers you." Although I believe Islam is the religion chosen by God, I cannot reject such words.

The ayatollah offered his gift as a "symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice". He has a long history of supporting peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews, including with illuminated calligraphic versions of the Qur'an, the Torah, the psalms, the New Testament, and the Book of Ezra.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani has been repeatedly jailed for his efforts. Speaking directly to the Baha'is of Iran, he said, in giving his gift, that it is "an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens", to a community that has "suffered in manifold ways" the consequences of "blind religious prejudice".

I am proud, as a Muslim and as an imam, to celebrate this enlightened gift, which has such immense spiritual significance. The faiths of the world should be united in promoting coexistence to advance human civilisation. Six thousand Baha'is live in the UK and I am proud to count many as my friends. The community is respected for promoting interfaith harmony. I am sure that Iranian Baha'is have the same hopes to serve their country and to live in peace.

Rowan Williams said the gift represents "a strand within the Islamic world at its best and most creative". The bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, called it "an imaginatively courageous step".

The ayatollah has done something unprecedented in Iran. And he is part of a growing trend in that country; others have also championed the inalienable rights of all Iranian citizens. Islam has a history of defending minorities and protecting their religious rights and freedoms. On a recent visit to the Holy Land I was reminded of how this was most emphatically demonstrated by the Caliph Umar when he ruled in Jerusalem. He ensured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained a Christian place of worship. Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani shows us that Islam's peaceful legacy is not just history: it must also be the future.

In One Word: Poof!

By Uri Avnery                          Gush Shalom                                         12 April 2014


In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace process”. They broke their obligation to release Palestinian prisoners, and at the same time announced the enlargement of more settlements in East Jerusalem. The peace efforts went “poof”. “Poof” is the sound of air escaping a balloon. It is a good expression, because the “peace process” was from the very beginning nothing more than a balloon full of hot air. An exercise in make-believe.

JOHN KERRY cannot be blamed. He took the whole thing seriously. He is an earnest politician, who tried very very hard to make peace between Israel and Palestine. We should be grateful for his efforts. The trouble is that Kerry had not the slightest idea of what he was getting himself into. The entire “peace process” revolves around a basic misconception. Some would say: a basic lie. Namely: that we have here two equal sides of a conflict. A serious conflict. An old conflict. But a conflict that can be solved when reasonable people of the two sides sit down together and thrash it out, guided by a benevolent and impartial referee.

Not one detail of these assumptions was real. The referee was not impartial. The leaders were not sensible. And most importantly: the sides were not equal. The balance of power between the two sides is not 1:1, not even 1:2 or 1:10. In every material respect – military, diplomatic, economic – it is more like one to a thousand.

There is no equality between occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed. A jailer and a prisoner cannot negotiate on equal terms. When one side has total command of the other, controls his every move, settles on his land, controls his money flow, arrests people at will, blocks his access to the UN and the International courts, equality is out of the question. If the two sides to negotiations are so extremely unequal, the situation can only be remedied by the mediator supporting the weaker side. What is happening is the very opposite: the American support for Israel is massive and unstinting. Throughout the “negotiations” the US did nothing to check the settlement activity that created more Israeli facts on the ground – the very ground whose future the negotiations were all about.

A PREREQUISITE for successful negotiations is that all sides have at least a basic understanding not only of each other’s interests and demands, but even more of each other's mental world, emotional setup and self-image. Without that, all moves are inexplicable and look irrational. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, one of the most intelligent people I have met in my life, once told me: “You have in Israel the most intelligent experts on the Arab world. They have read all the books, all the articles, every single word written about it. They know everything, and understand nothing. Because they have never lived one day in an Arab country.”

The same is true for the American experts, only much more so. In Washington DC one feels the rarefied air of a Himalayan peak. Seen from the grandiose palaces of the administration, where the fate of the world is decided, foreign people look small, primitive and largely irrelevant. Here and there some real experts are tucked away, but nobody really consults them. The average American statesman has not the slightest idea of Arab history, world-view, religions, myths or the traumas that shape Arab attitudes, not to mention the Palestinian struggle. He has no patience for this primitive nonsense.

SEEMINGLY, THE American understanding of Israel is much better. But not really.

Average American politicians and diplomats know a lot about Jews. Many of them are Jews. Kerry himself seems to be partly Jewish. His peace team includes many Jews, even Zionists, including the actual manager of the negotiations, Martin Indyk, who worked in the past for AIPAC. His very name is Yiddish (and means a Turkey).

The assumption is that Israelis are not very different from American Jews. But that is entirely false. Israel may claim to be the “Nation-State of the Jewish People”, but that is only an instrument for exploiting the Jewish Diaspora and creating obstacles for the “peace process”. In reality there is very little similarity between Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora, not much more than between a German and a Japanese.

Martin Indyk may feel an affinity with Tzipi Livni, the daughter of an Irgun fighter (or “terrorist” in British parlance), but that is an illusion. The myths and traumas that shaped Tzipi are very different from those that shaped Martin, who was educated in Australia. If Barack Obama and Kerry knew more, they would have realized from the beginning that the present Israeli political setup makes any Israeli evacuation of the settlements, withdrawal from the West Bank and compromise about Jerusalem quite impossible.

ALL THIS is true for the Palestinian side, too. Palestinians are convinced that they understand Israel. After all, they have been under Israeli occupation for decades. Many of them have spent years in Israeli prisons and speak perfect Hebrew. But they have made many mistakes in their dealings with Israelis. The latest one was the belief that Israel would release the fourth batch of prisoners. This was almost impossible. All Israeli media, including the moderate ones, speak about releasing “Palestinian murderers”, not Palestinian activists or fighters. Right-wing parties compete with each other, and with rightist “terror-victims”, in denouncing this outrage.

Israelis do not understand the deep emotions evoked by the non-release of prisoners – the national heroes of the Palestinian people, though Israel itself has in the past exchanged a thousand Arab prisoners for one single Israeli, citing the Jewish religious command of “redemption of prisoners”.Palestinians know nothing about Jewish history as taught in Israeli schools, very little about the holocaust, even less about the roots of Zionism.

As usual, the Israeli government has many fears. It fears the outbreak of a third intifada, coupled with a world-wide campaign of de-legitimization and boycott of Israel, especially in Europe. It also fears that the UN, which at present recognizes Palestine only as a non-member state, will go on and promote it more and more.

The Palestinian leadership, too, is afraid of a third intifada, which may lead to a bloody uprising. Though all Palestinians speak about a “non-violent intifada”, few really believe in it. They remember that the last intifada also started non-violently, but the Israeli army responded by deploying snipers to kill the leaders of the demonstrations, and more suicide bombing became inevitable.

President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has responded to the non-release of the prisoners, which amounted to a personal humiliation, by signing the documents necessary for the Palestinian State to join 15 international conventions. The Israeli government exploded in anger. How dare they? In practice, the act means little. One signature means that Palestine joins the Geneva Convention. Another concerns the protection of children. Shouldn’t we welcome this? But the Israeli government fears that this is one step nearer to the acceptance of Palestine as a member of the International Criminal Court, and perhaps the indictment of Israelis for war crimes.

Abbas is also planning steps for a reconciliation with Hamas and the holding of Palestinian elections. IF YOU were poor John Kerry, what would you say to all this? “Poof!” seems the very minimum. [Abbrev.]

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

David Cameron won't win votes by calling Britain a Christian country

Like all humanity, the religious are both good and bad. The PM pretends otherwise

Polly Toynbee                                      Guardian/UK                                 18 April 2014

A surprise "Dear Polly" message lands in my inbox from the Conservative Christian Fellowship wishing me a blessed Easter and bringing with it a YouTube link to the prime minister's Easter message. David Cameron this week has been love-bombing the Church of England with a radio interview about his children's faith, a speech at an Easter reception for Christian leaders in Downing Street and an article in the Church Times.

It's mostly toe-curling stuff. "My government has a sense of evangelism" and even that "Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago". If Cameron's faith is, as he told the Guardian in 2008, "like reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes", it certainly came on strong this week. It matters little what he actually believes: let's not make windows into our leaders' souls, just watch what they do. His social liberalism winks on and off according to political exigency. For the Catholic Herald just before the election he was for cutting abortion times, anti assisted dying and he voted against lesbian motherhood without a father.

So why God now? His core message, "This is a Christian country", dog-whistles to key voters. Ostensibly, it soothes the noisy but electorally few affronted folk in the pews angry about gay marriage, whose fury he had underestimated. For them Cameron ladled out syrupy retro-visions of the C of E of his Oxfordshire upbringing, its liturgy and heritage, his love of early morning eucharist at his children's school's church. But his "Christian country" message is really whistling to the errant flock fled to Ukip. [UK Independence Party].

Naturally, Cameron is careful to say "this is not somehow doing down other faiths". But those who feel threatened on account of their non-Christian faith won't find Christian branding reassuring. This week, an article on this site described how the far right is using pork to persecute Jews and Muslims, as Marine Le Pen stops schools serving non-pork options in the French towns she now controls. More horrible still, members of the Flemish Vlaams Belang party reportedly stormed into a school and forced pork sausages into children's mouths.

Such abuse by the right in the name of "secularism" outrages British secularists and humanists who stand with Voltaire, ready to die for the right of anyone's beliefs, so long as they don't impose it on others. At a time of anti-Muslim attacks, when Islamist extremism is feared for its terrorist potential, Cameron's "Christian country" is soaked in white nationalist significance. He has great verbal agility in sounding eminently moderate and reasonable while planting darker ideas. Behind a harmless love for country churches is a whiff of culture war politics.

The C of E is a confusing creature. Even while it tussles internally between conservative and liberal wings on gay marriage or female bishops, polls of its members show it's no longer the Conservative party at prayer: more vote Lib Dem and Labour. Look at the 40 bishops' raspberry of an Easter message to Cameron, with their strong rebuke against the "national crisis" of hunger so much worsened by his welfare policies. They know because their churches house the food banks used by almost a million people.

Even the Rev Steve Chalke has taken up arms, though his Christian organisation runs contracted-out social services. He was incandescent at Cameron's refusal to let a girl at one of his schools stay in the UK just a few months longer to take her A-levels. "The Bible is clear: it is our God-given responsibility to take care of the widow, the fatherless and the refugee," he said. Which is why it's unwise for politicians to tangle with God.

How does "Christian" play politically in Britain? I suspect most people, religious or not, shudder at politicians pitching their tents on church turf. The WIN/Gallup International survey finds the UK among the least religious: only a third say religion plays a positive role. Asked in the 2011 census "What is your religion?", 59% said Christian – surprisingly few as most people saw it as a question of culture rather than belief. Asked by YouGov more specifically, "Are you religious?", only 29% said yes and 65% said no. That's good news for us humanists (I am vice-president of the British Humanist Association). Religion imposed on the rest of us is profoundly resented by the great majority. [Abridged]

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Capitalism simply isn't working and here are the reasons

Economist Thomas Piketty's message is bleak: the gap between rich and poor threatens to destroy us

Will Hutton                      Guardian/UK                                12 April 2014

Suddenly, there is a new economist making waves – and he is not on the right. At the conference of the Institute of New Economic Thinking in Toronto last week, Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century got at least one mention at every session I attended. You have to go back to the 1970s and Milton Friedman for a single economist to have had such an impact. Piketty is in no doubt that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it.

It is a startling thesis and one extraordinarily unwelcome to those who think capitalism and inequality need each other. Capitalism requires inequality of wealth, runs this right-of-centre argument, to stimulate risk-taking and effort; governments trying to stem it with taxes on wealth, capital, inheritance and property kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Thus Messrs Cameron and Osborne faithfully champion lower inheritance taxes, refuse to reshape the council tax and boast about the business-friendly low capital gains and corporation tax regime.
Piketty deploys 200 years of data to prove them wrong. Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.
Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life.
Piketty shows how the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace. Now the process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale. The consequences, writes Piketty, are "potentially terrifying".
Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don't need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.
Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system. Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.  As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don't have the wherewithal to sustain them.
Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part, not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.
The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.
The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable. But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable.        [Abridged]    

Forgiveness is not something you feel – it is something that you do

Forgiveness as a kindly feeling towards a wrongdoer is that it is impossible for most of us

Giles Fraser                      Guardian/UK                      11 April 2014 18

On 6 April 1994, the president of Rwanda's private plane was shot down near Kigali. It was the spark for the 100 days of murder that we now know as genocide. Neighbours hacked neighbours to death in their beds with machetes. Bodies and body parts were piled up at the side of the road. Wild dogs fed off the corpses. In that three months, something like three-quarters of Rwanda's Tutsi minority were exterminated by the Hutu majority.

In the 20 years since then there has been much talk of forgiveness and reconciliation – some of it glib, some of it enormously impressive. And I'm perfectly aware that someone like me probably can't talk legitimately about forgiveness when I find it so hard to forgive people myself – even for things that are pathetically small.
But I am going to risk it only because I suspect there is so much sentimentalising of forgiveness that it blocks out much of our understanding of the real thing. And by sentimentalising, I mean the idea that forgiveness involves person A coming to have warm and kindly feelings towards person B when person B has done them some enormous harm.
This basic logic of reciprocity is built into our very understanding of justice, which is why, for instance, there are weighing scales above the Old Bailey. Crime deserves some punishment in proportion to the crime committed. It's the same logic that evangelical Christians have built into their understanding of the cross: that Jesus's suffering and death are a sort of cosmic payback for human sin.
Forgiveness looks too much like letting people off – that forgiveness is fundamentally unjust, that it represents unpunished crime. The problem with reciprocity is that it often just kicks the can of resentment down the road.
We fantasise that getting even is an end to it. But often it only prepares the ground for a new set of resentments, and so the wheel of anger and violence just keeps on spinning. The problem with justice is that it is sometimes too closely aligned with revenge. And as we know, tragically, victims can easily become the next set of victimisers.
Forgiveness, as in the refusal of reciprocity, does not make us feel good inside. We are still bitter and angry. But if this is the burden we have to bear for peace, then so be it. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.    @giles_fraser


Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                   April 11, 2014

 Easter approaches – but does Easter really matter any more? This is, after all, a secular country. Only the vestiges of Christian observance remain in public life, as in shops closing and ad-free radio and television on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.   Some retailers and broadcasters resent even that – they ask why anyone should be allowed to get in the way of their sacred duty to make money? The case could be made that all restrictions should be lifted and the holiday abolished as irrelevant to our secular world.

Everything hinges, of course, on how Easter is interpreted. For Christians the festival will always be central. But among the secular majority a mix of ignorance, apathy and scorn is seeing it sidelined as a quaint relic of a supernatural past.   In Christian history Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal. It is the equivalent of the Big Bang in the story of the Earth. Without the Big Bang there would have been no planet Earth as we know it, no life on Earth, no us. Yet although scientists can trace the Earth’s evolution back to the beginning and draw conclusions about energy, matter, gravity, electromagnetism, time and much else, the moment of the Big Bang is still shrouded in mystery. We know it happened from its effects.

Likewise with the resurrection. Without the experience of resurrection by Jesus’ followers there could have been no Christianity, no church, none of the Christian cultural legacy of the West. We know it happened from its effects.

Attempts to define just what happened range from the ingenious to the bizarre. The view that resurrection means that Jesus’ dead body sprang back to life to walk, talk, eat and drink is shared, strangely, both by fundamentalist Christians (who affirm it as the core of their faith) and fundamentalist atheists (who use it to reject Christianity as untenable).  Bodily resuscitation is clearly one interpretation that can be drawn from the various New Testament accounts. And the notion of God restoring the crucified Jesus to life was not outlandish in the Jewish and Greek worlds where it took root.

But it is outlandish in ours. We stand 20 centuries, several cultures and a scientific revolution away from the moment of resurrection experience which, for all the zillions of words that have been written about it, remains at base a mystery.  All that is certain is that Jesus’ earliest followers experienced something that transformed them from a dejected, dispirited band into the vanguard of a confident, dynamic movement that was to transform the lives of billions. As with the Big Bang, the reverberations from that experience are undeniable.

The experience triggered the conviction that Jesus was not finished and done with after all. Everything he had come to mean to his disciples still stirred in them – in fact, the more they thought about it, the more they saw in him the fulfilment of all they valued most in their Jewish religious heritage. So they did not find it strange to say “Jesus lives.” More, they found their experience of Jesus somehow reflected their experience of Godness. They summed this up in the earliest creed: “Jesus is Lord.”

But how were they to convey the new reality to others? By composing stories that others could relate to – that was the Jewish way. This meant giving narrative form to their internal experience by telling who went where in the days following Easter, what happened to them, how they responded. During the 1st century those accounts became steadily more concrete in their portrayal of the resurrection, culminating in an empty tomb, a resuscitated physical body, and shared meals. None of these is present in the earliest record, that of the apostle Paul. And despite the elaborations, the heart of Easter remained the Big Bang of their experience, not the stories written to communicate it.

The next step in the process was to interpret the narrative theologically. This came first through imaginative links with key moments in the Jews’ religious history. It was then expanded to take in Greek philosophical understandings. Much later came creedal statements.

A former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, identifies the nub of it: “The resurrection of Jesus is best understood, best used, as a symbol or sign of the human possibility of transformation. That transformation can be experienced at both the personal and social level; and one can lead to another.”

That, in modern parlance, is the good news Easter exists to convey – and it’s still worth a holiday to give it wings.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


Edith Cavell   Her very last words – spoken to a British chaplain before she was executed – were these: “But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” 
War           “War is not over when fighting ends. Last year, more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives than were killed in battle.  Paul Vallely  (November 2012)
Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester

WAR          “We are rapidly getting to the point that no war can be won.  War implies a contest; when you get to the point…that the outlook looks close to the destruction of the enemy and suicide for ourselves…. then arguments as to the exact amount of available strength as compared to somebody else’s are no longer the vital issues.”   Dwight D.Eisenhower, 1956  (quoted by Ruth Leger Sivard)

Some Nelson Mandela Quotes:            from Common Dreams        December, 2013
1. "There is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like."
2. “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
3. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
4. "Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self-interest and brute needs and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulses for nonviolence, justice and equality. He exposes the fallacy of the claim that everyone can be rich and successful provided they work hard. He points to the millions who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry."      
5. "We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do what is right.

Pope Francis:   “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. … A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”   A quote from his Evangelii Gaudium, December 2013.

Two Winston Churchill Quotes:
[of Hitler]  “The story of his struggles cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate or overcome all the authorities or resistances which barred his path.”   “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in a war, I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.”  From speech 11 November, 1938   Not quoted to indicate agreement!

Today   “We live in the most illuminated of dark ages.”   Paul Heins – quoted by Dorothy Butler in her autobiography “All This and a Bookshop too”  P.407

Saturday, 5 April 2014

New 'religious' group just as deadly as the ones that preceded it

Joan Chittister                 National Catholic Reporter              |  Mar. 19, 2014

Here's the problem with religion. You never know which religion you're going to meet: the "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" kind, or the "Get thee behind me, Satan" kind.  You have to be very careful not to confuse one with the other. Your very life could depend on it.
The golden-rule types take people into the center of the community; the get-out-of-my-sight kind keep people out of it. One kind of religion embraces those who are different from themselves; the other excludes those who are different, the ones who are not like them: blacks if they're white; Jews if they're Christian; women if they're men.
Some people have lived restricted lives and even died at the hands of those who sought to restrict them -- some for trying to eat at white lunch counters or sitting down on buses; some for having ancestors in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago; some for serving soup that was cold or not ironing the shirts right.
The important thing to remember is that it doesn't really matter how the transgressions were defined. What matters is that the arguments in defense of doing it were always the same: God didn't want mixed races, or God wanted women to obey men, or God wanted Jews punished because the Romans crucified  Jesus.  And we forswore them all and thought we had learned something.
Until, lo and behold, we now discover that we have a new group developing, just as deadly, just as "religious" as the ones that preceded it.  It was done as if we never learned anything from all our previous attempts to exclude multiple other groups before this -- Native Americans, women, the Irish, Eastern Europeans, anyone who fell outside the pale in the past.  This time, they wanted to discriminate against people in the name of "religious freedom" -- read lesbian, people. They wanted public businesses to have the right to refuse to serve patrons who seek the services promised to the public under those same laws. It was a matter of "religious freedom," they said. But the argument is not all that simple.
The state that gives businesses tax breaks and public security protections and requires quality control of goods and services for the sake of the public good has the right to require that those services be available to the public. Or forget the tax breaks and the public police and fire protection and the legal recourse to protection of that business under the law.  After more than a century of segregation, people across the country stood up to refuse another century of shunnings in the name of God.
We have all watched our gay children committing suicide to avoid the bullying and social discrimination that dogged their lives. This time, Arizona said, "Enough of that."  We all see young gay women and men doomed to lives of rejection and ridicule for choices not their own, and people everywhere are beginning to say no to that.
So now, the exclusionists whose "religion" defies the very principles of the God who created the others as well as themselves are working again to sequester and silence those who are other than themselves. So if they get the right to do those things, what will the future look like for the rest of us?
Well, if this new kind of exclusion becomes standard, beware of your own social fragility. If your Mormon grocer finds out that you drink, you may never be allowed in the store again. Or your Jewish restaurant owner finds out you eat pork. Or your Muslim gas station owner does not approve of women drivers. Or your Catholic pharmacist figures out that you take birth control pills. I just want to remind you that people have been killed because they were Jewish, or black, or women -- or gay. So why not again? Why not here? Why not, if it's all legal?
After all, the next time, you may be what someone considers "morally offensive to their deeply held religious convictions." Just as were Jews, Catholics and blacks to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Or gypsies to the Nazis. Or now, homosexuals in Uganda. All of them by very religious people. The other kind.      [Abridged]

Friday, 4 April 2014

Same-sex marriage will help spread the message that Gay is OK

Heather Peace                 Independent/UK             30 March 2014

Earlier this week I was the guest speaker at the school assembly for Carshalton High School For Girls. I was invited by pupils who told me the school was celebrating the legalisation of equal marriage and spreading the phrase ‘Gay is OK’.  As someone who remembers Section 28 all too clearly, I readily accepted the invitation. The whole morning spent with these wonderful teenagers and their teachers was both moving and inspiring.
For the past three years, I played Nikki Boston in BBC One school drama Waterloo Road. Every single day I received messages on social media from kids struggling to deal with their sexuality or with gender issues. Struggling because of homophobic bullying, because the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ has become a way to describe something that’s rubbish, because they don’t know how to speak to their peers or their families and because they feel lesser by admitting that they’re gay.

At Carshalton High School, we talked a lot about language and why it’s so important to consider the words we use and how they’ll affect other people. I also explained that, for me, this is one of the main reasons that equal marriage is so important.  My partner and I had a beautiful Civil Partnership last year and since we’d already spent five years together, I was unprepared for the very subtle, gorgeous change that your relationship experiences when you make those vows. A feeling of security and calm came with having made the commitment, of telling each other, in front of all of the people we love, that this is forever.
I’ve described this to many people who have then asked why we really need equal marriage if a civil partnership looks the same, feels the same and by all accounts is the same. There are obviously a few legal differences with regards to wills, pensions and the fact your ceremony can't take place with any religious context. But the biggest difference is simply language. By calling it something else, we constantly reinforce to wider society and, most importantly to the next generation, that same sex partnerships are different, that they are somehow less. Less important, less real, a lesser love.
The passing of equal marriage will send a message to young people struggling with their sexuality that their future relationships matter. One day they will have the choice to commit to the person they love in exactly the same way as their straight friends. It will tell them that their love is not different and it will also send exactly the same message to straight kids.
There’s a long way to go until our society achieves equality for LGBT people and we must not forget the bigger struggles faced by our brothers and sisters internationally. But equal marriage is a massive step and even if the tradition of marriage isn’t something you’re interested in, then just having the choice to reject it is something to celebrate.
The ‘Gay Is OK’ assembly at Carshalton High School was organised completely by the students and included dances, videos and speeches. I left feeling incredibly optimistic. With a bit more pressure, campaigning and fighting from our generation, the next generation will ridicule the fact that we had to fight at all.

Fringe People

by Ian Harris               Otago Daily Times          March 28, 2014

There have always been two main ways to bring about change: from the centre, and from the fringes.  The first brings change through power and authority. It was from the centre that Britain’s Parliament repeatedly reformed itself to reflect a changing society. From the centre that Pope Francis is apparently trying to reorient the Catholic Church away from the security of domination by the Vatican curia to the vulnerability of serving the powerless. From the centre that successive New Zealand governments jerked the country away from its humane ideal where the economy serves the well-being of all to an economy which is geared to serve the powerful, and where the gap between rich and poor consequently grows ever wider.

Contrast that with change generated on the margins – the French Revolution, the rise of trade unions and their party of Labour, the American civil rights movement, the emergence of the Treaty of Waitangi as a force for social justice.  In the arts, the 19th-century Impressionists challenged a stultified art establishment, Ibsen wrote a new kind of play, Freud and Jung steered psychology into new territory. Energy on the margins continues in periodic fringe festivals, full of experiment, creativity and edginess.

One of last century’s most influential theologians, Paul Tillich, knew all about fringes. A marked man after the Nazis came to power, he was forced to leave Germany for the United States. But he always felt himself to be on a boundary of one kind or another – between the Old World and the New, between tradition and the pressures of modernity, between abstract theological thinking and full engagement with a wide range of people, between theology and politics, economics, art, literature, philosophy. He found the boundary the most creative place to be.

In matters of religion, it still is. That is not to denigrate the role of institutions which have carried age-old traditions into the modern world, especially the elusive experience of the sacred. But it does suggest that the old formulations, conceived in and for other eras, are no longer adequate. What they point to needs to be rethought and re-expressed if it is to be part of that elusive experience of the sacred for secular people in a secular world.

Since the 1960s there have been plenty of theologians and ministers quarrying on the fringes of traditional belief, plenty of groups on the fringes of church life feeling their way into new understandings of Christian experience. They find, inevitably, that stepping beyond the authoritatively sanctioned carries uncertainty and risk.

Those who explore something new obviously hope to find something worthwhile – but they also risk failure. Tillich comments: “He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” And “Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.”

The early days of the church illustrate this. The Christian way began as a fringe movement within the mainstream of Jewish life and faith. The first followers of Jesus worshipped in the synagogues. Their holy book was the Jewish scriptures – the gospels were yet to be written.

About 50 years after Jesus’ death, however, mounting tension between the rabbis of the old Israel and what Christians came to call their new Israel pushed the Christians to the margins, then out altogether. But there had to be a mainstream for the fringe to exist at all, and the church has never repudiated its debt to its Jewish spiritual heritage – indeed, Christianity makes little sense without it. Over the centuries this fragile fringe grew to become a new mainstream centred on the authority and power of the Catholic Church. In the early 1500s a new fringe developed and burst free in the Protestant Reformation – and churches that emerged from that convulsion then became mainstream in northern Europe.

Again today there are fringes all round the mainstream churches, but of a different order. Most of those involved have not cut all ties with their churches, but have become impatient with institutional preoccupations, supernatural assumptions, creedal rigidity and growing conservatism.

So, like Tillich, they look for breathing-space on the margins – to explore new thinking, seek fresh perspectives on the sacred, find their own spiritual integrity and confidence. That carries the risk of rejection by the mainstream and, for those not determined to retain their connection to the core Christian heritage, of ending up in quirky isolation. But the risk is worth taking. Those who never risk and never fail are failures in their whole being.