Sunday, 17 September 2017

Election Voting 2017

by Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times               Sept. 8, 2017

Before we settle on which political party to support, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves, urges Ian Harris.

An election is traditionally an opportunity to ask questions of would-be politicians. More fruitfully, it’s an opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. Questions to candidates will then follow, but the self-examination is actually the more valuable for democratic engagement. That’s because a healthy democracy involves more than ticking a box on a ballot paper once every three years. It thrives when we give serious thought to what kind of society we want to live in, and what changes we are willing to contemplate to bring it about. If you think you already live in an earthly paradise, of course, you will want nothing to change at all.

That’s unlikely, so here’s a check-list to get you started: 

■ What values are core for you – so important that they will determine your vote? Do those values tilt more towards yourself and your own advantage, or towards society and the common good?
■ Do you think economic considerations outweigh social issues? Moral issues? Environmental issues?
■ Are you content with the New Zealand that 30 years of neo-liberal economics have produced, and therefore want more of the same? Or do you favour a more inclusive economic model?
■ Are you open to good ideas, no matter which party offers them?
■ Is this invitation to self-reflection a waste of time, because you always vote for the same party regardless?

Only when you have held up the mirror to yourself are you democratically primed to turn your gaze outwards and evaluate the parties, their programmes, and the candidates who aspire to represent you in Parliament. And there, as often as not, a trade-off begins. No party is perfect, and there will always be unintended consequences from whatever policy is implemented. That’s why the values shaping those programmes should be the crucial test and measure.

A previous column highlighted the values of care, community and creativity. So another question: How important are those values to you? Will you apply them to assess the parties and their platforms? There are plenty of other questions touching on New Zealand and its place in the world. One bears directly on the kind of country that we’d like to pass on to our children and grandchildren, but it is distinguished by hardly figuring at all: a comprehensive population policy to give stability and direction as we move steadily forward into a globalising world.

For many years the prime focus has been on growing the economy, as though that were sufficient in itself, without worrying too much about the overall effects on people and the land. One result has been a tight lid on wages through ramping up immigration. That’s totally inadequate. A population policy would settle on a desirable level of immigration, taking into account the diversity and balance of ethnicities, the country’s bicultural foundation, what will be needed in housing, health care, schools, social welfare as the numbers grow, increasing pressures on the natural environment, the impact on productive land as cities sprawl into orchards, market gardens, and farms.

The market-driven emphasis on growth, growth and more growth has a lot to answer for, and one serious effect is its colonisation of head-space, closing out other options. Let’s strike a blow for freedom by unhitching “wealth” from its present connotation of amassing piles of money, and restoring its original meaning of “well-being”, both individual and social. That is a prime concern of all major religions, and people of faith should want to see that truer concept of wealth applied across the board.

Politicians won’t usually look to the prophetic poetry of the Bible for guidance, but a distinguished American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, thinks voters can and should. He says the poetry of the prophets urges people: Don’t let anyone tell you that the dominant ideology is a given. It may suit the moneyed elites of the day to say so, but you can maintain a zone of freedom in your lives that allows you to imagine otherwise – and then act accordingly.

Your vote is an excellent place to start. Child poverty in a land of plenty, housing too expensive for many to contemplate, rivers too polluted to swim in any more, health care unavailable to many who need it, a tepid response to climate change, not requiring a living wage for the lowest-paid – these are not inevitable states of nature. They are the result of political decisions based on economic theories serving those who already have the most. How different all these would be if care, community and creativity were central! It’s time they were. 

The best weapon to de-radicalise Isis returnees? Our own humanity

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini                     Guardian/UK               15 September 2017

With relentless air strikes and ground attacks against Islamic State in Syria, hundreds of their foreign fighters and supporters are massing on the Turkish border, trying to get out. Of the at least 20,000 foreign fighters estimated to have been in Syria, 2,500 were thought to be Europeans, of whom 850 were British. Many may have died, but those who remain are likely to try to return home at some stage. The looming question is: what now? How do we treat them? Even if they say they are repentant, can we trust them? What if these former fighters are returning to form sleeper cells and plan attacks on home soil? It is easy to dehumanise: these are the ultimate bad guys, dressed in black, killing and maiming with glee.

However, there is more to them than meets the eye. For years researchers and activists have delved into why people have been radicalised. Some went to Syria out of compassion for the plight of Syrians at the hands of the Assad regime, and profound anger at the seeming inaction of their own governments – ignoring the thousands of Syrian civil society activists who begged them to stay away. Others, particularly, the younger women, wanted to free themselves of the shackles of familial expectations, and were lured by a mix of online sexual grooming and the promise of empowerment. Many were petty criminals evangelised in state prisons. Undoubtedly some have mental health issues, and others are simply opportunists.

So what do we do? Many might assume they will be imprisoned. But prisons are key sites for recruitment and radicalisation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis founder, was a two-bit nobody until he landed in an American prison in Iraq. The humiliation he experienced at the hands of US forces motivated his founding of Isis. Prisons in the UK, Belgium and France could enable them to recruit a new cadre of supporters.

In Pakistan the Paiman Trust, a non-governmental organisation, combines psycho-social care with religious literacy, livelihood-skills training and even civic education to teach the reforming Taliban about their multiple identities and cultures as Pakistanis, Pathans and Muslims. Recognising their humanity is at the core of any of these programmes. “I wish them happy birthday, because no one has ever done that. They call me Baba,” says Shafqat Khan, of the Paiman Trust. It turns out caring brings the best outcomes. But it is painstaking work, and families can face tremendous stigma. Some may be ashamed to reclaim sons – and especially daughters – who have transgressed acceptable social norms. Others may be fearful of constant police surveillance. There is doubtless much anger, pain and sense of betrayal.

To avoid a backlash against minority communities, the government and media must emphasise that these returnees represent a minuscule minority of the 2.7 million Muslims in the UK. Some Muslims, like any other Britons, may have felt similar grievances as those who were radicalised, but they have gone on to lead normal lives – so rehabilitation programmes cannot be perceived as rewarding violence. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear

Ultimately, we must be mindful of our own humanity. Extremists can be violent because they separate themselves from “others”. They lose empathy and compassion. As we face the prospect of Isis returnees to the UK, we must challenge our own perceptions. It would be easy if they were all one-dimensional, Bond-movie bad guys – but they are not. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear. Instead our collective task as a nation is to find our own deep well of decency and humanity, to be fair and compassionate, just and kind, and perhaps above all to care: about the victims, the perpetrators, and those who are both victim and perpetrator. [Abridged]

• Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is the co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The most arrogant people in Australia are business people and we're sick of them

Ross Gittins                     Sydney Morning Herald                      September 6 2017

How the worm – and the world – turns. When the Abbott government came to power just four years ago, it claimed its arrival signalled the "end of the age of entitlement". Don't laugh, it's happening – but in the opposite way to what treasurer Joe Hockey had in mind. As Hockey saw it, the sense of entitlement we'd acquired, but which could no long be afforded, applied to the social needs of individuals and families.

We saw the results of this attitude in Tony Abbott and Hockey's first budget of 2014, which got an enormous thumbs-down from the public and the Senate, so that pretty much all that remains of the attack on unwarranted entitlement is the unending crusade by the government's Don Quixote, Christian Porter, and his loyal Sancho, Alan Tudge, to root out the last welfare cheat.

Not content with the grand stuff-up that was the "robodebt" use of unguided computers to collect amounts that may or may not have been overpaid, the pair are now hot on the trail of drug-taking welfare recipients. Drug testing isn't cheap, so it's likely the exercise will cost the taxpayer more than it saves. And drug care experts – who weren't consulted - say addicts can't be successfully coerced into treatment.

Trouble is, successive governments have been cracking down on welfare cheats every year for decades, so there can't be all that many of 'em left. Why do I get the feeling that cracking down on welfare cheating is, at best, what governments do when they want to be seen to be cutting their spending but aren't game to. Or, at worst, when they want to exploit the popular delusion that we could all be paying less tax if it weren't for the massive sums being siphoned off by dole bludgers and the like.

Sorry, the people doing by far the most to keep welfare spending high and rising are known as age pensioners. And no one has a stronger sense of entitlement than an oldie fighting for the pension. "I've paid taxes all my life . . ." But though one of Aussies' less attractive traits has been our proneness to "downwards envy" – the delusion that people worse-off than us are doing it easy – polling by the Essential organisation suggests it may be wearing off, replaced by disapproval of wealthier tax dodgers.

They used not to be so arrogant, but more than three decades of neoliberal ideology – under which governments should do as little as possible to burden the private sector or restrict its freedom – have left business people convinced they're demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation. They're the source of all jobs, and thus entitled to have their every demand satisfied.

The developed world is still recovering from the carnage of the global financial crisis, caused by letting American banks do hugely risky things in the pursuit of higher profits and bonuses, confident in the knowledge that, should things come unstuck, the government would bail them out. Meanwhile, journalists are uncovering a remarkable degree of lawlessness by other businesses: young people paid less than their legal entitlement, exploitation of foreign workers on visas, employers failing to pay in their workers' super contributions. It's as though business people see themselves as so economically virtuous as to be above the law. Just a bit of red tape those gutless pollies have yet to clear away.

What's changed with the end of the era of neoliberalism, however, is the willingness of politicians on both sides to toughen up on the banks and other businesses. They'll be paying more rather than less tax in future, and governments are already far less hesitant to regulate them more closely. I see a lot more coming. Why? Because voters have got sick of arrogant business people. [Abridged]

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

There’s a disaster much worse than Texas. But no one talks about it

Jonathan Freedland                Guardian/UK                  3 September 2017

In this story America is not the victim. Along with Britain, it is on the side of the perpetrator – helping to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

What is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, in Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet. As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.

That there is a disparity in the global attention paid to these two natural disasters is hardly a novelty. It’s as old as the news itself, expressed in one, perhaps apocryphal Fleet Street maxim like a law of physics: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”

But I’ve not yet given an answer to my quiz question. Full marks if you put your hand up to say … Yemen. In July the UN determined that it was “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. If you think it’s hard to get westerners interested in flood victims in Nepal, just try talking about Yemen.

The scale of the suffering in the Arab world’s poorest country is clear. Since it became the site of a proxy war in March 2015, 10,000 people have been killed, with 7 million made homeless. The UN is especially anxious about cholera, which has already killed 2,000 people and infected more than 540,000. It threatens to become an epidemic. That’s no surprise, given that sewage plants have been among the infrastructure bombed from the sky. The Saudi-led coalition has kept Sana’a airport closed, which means food and medicines cannot get in and the sick cannot get out for treatment. Pictures of gaunt children, listless babies and starving mothers recall the worst of Africa’s famines – but this disaster is entirely human-made. Nor is this a remote story utterly unconnected to us. On the contrary, the Saudi government is armed to the hilt with weapons supplied by the UK and the US: £3.3bn worth of British firepower in the first year of this vicious war alone. And yet Yemen has barely registered in the western consciousness, let alone stirred the western conscience.

Of course, there are all the usual factors explaining public indifference to horrible events far, far away. But there is one that is relatively new. Before 2003, whenever word came of some distant catastrophe that posed no threat to our own safety, a discussion soon followed on what “we” should do about it. The two sides would take up their positions: the “something must be done” brigade pitted against those who argue that, however awful things are, it is none of our business and we will only make matters worse. Sometimes the latter camp would prevail – think of Douglas Hurd and mid-1990s Bosnia; sometimes, the former: witness Tony Blair and Kosovo.

After Iraq, that changed. Thanks to the invasion, as well as the bloodshed and mayhem in Afghanistan and Libya, the argument is now settled – and the non-interventionists won. The test case is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people – more than Saddam ever did – and yet has been allowed to retain his throne untroubled by outside challenge. There’s not much interest even in pressuring London and Washington to stop arming the Saudi regime that is responsible for the country’s torment, despite the warnings that Yemen risks becoming the next Syria: its soil soaked in blood, rendered fertile for the next generation of violent jihadists.

It is worth noting one consequence of this shift: it’s as if, now that we know that we will do nothing about these distant tragedies, we have lost interest in them altogether. If we are not going to act, then why bother knowing about them? The result is that the children of Yemen are dying cruel deaths, while the rest of the world ignores them. They are dying under a hot desert sun, killed by our allies – and by our inattention. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Jesus and Christ, Part 2

By Ian Harris                       Otago Daily Times                      August 11, 2017

Jesus and Christ are linked but not the same, says Ian Harris. So be sure to place the Christ within the human thought-world where archetypes belong.

There’s only one great, interconnected world. But there are worlds within that world, and two biggies stand out. Theologian Sir Lloyd Geering identifies them as the physical world of nature and science, and the world of human thought. The physical world takes in geology and biology, physics and chemistry, quantum physics and everything where the laws of science apply. The thought-world is very different. It’s all we experience that isn’t subject to the scientific method of observation, experiment, and replication in order to reach a predictable result. It’s the realm of emotion, imagination, reflection, interpretation, dreaming and creativity. It’s the realm that produces a Shakespeare or Beethoven or Mandela in a way no scientist could predict. It’s the realm that prompts people to affirm values and look for purpose in life.

Obviously there would be no thought-world without the physical world, because we’re physical beings – but the fact of being flesh and bone doesn’t go anywhere near to telling us who we are. Obviously, too, our physical brains and bodies affect our thought-world, just as our thought-world impacts on our brains and bodies, as in helping or impeding healing. Traditionally, God was located in that physical world – creating it, intervening directly in it, to cause good harvests, trigger earthquakes, help this person recover from illness but let that one die, protect from danger, bring sunshine or rain. Lots of prayers still assume so.

Today, however, many people see God rather as a product of the human thought-world, finding the concept relevant as they reflect on their experience, seek meaning and purpose, think about values and what is ultimate for them, and wonder about the dynamic interconnectedness of all life. That’s the world of religion, because religion belongs within the world of human thought and consciousness rather than the physical world. The human Jesus belonged in the physical world in the same way as we do, but he contributed to the thought-world in a massively positive and empowering way. So did the apostle Paul. He built on Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God by tapping into a powerful and universal archetype latent within the thought-world: an archetype of love, grace and transformation, which he and others of his day called “the Christ”.

For Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, an archetype is a primordial image or motif that has evolved in the collective experience of humankind and identifies a basic human model or experience. Examples are the hero, the mother, the wise old man, the caregiver, the one who delivers from bondage, the lover, the visionary. They crop up repeatedly in dreams, in mythology, and in religion. Jung’s term wasn’t available to Paul, but the messiah or Christ as an archetype of the bearer of love, grace and transformation was at the heart of his thinking – just as those qualities were the core of Jesus’ teaching in his metaphor of the kingdom of God. So it’s not one or the other, Jesus or Christ, but a fusion of both, with the practical purpose of furthering Jesus’ vision for bringing wholeness to individuals, societies and the world. It’s a wholeness in one’s very being, from which good deeds will flow.

Paul gives that vision wings in a phrase he uses like a signature tune: “in Christ”. Again and again he urges action and reflection “in Christ” as archetype of love, grace and transformation. He greets Christian communities “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus”. Why not “in Jesus”? Because that would shift the focus to the historical Jesus, a man in the physical world, whereas an archetype belongs in the collective subconscious of the thought-world. Hence Paul talks of “Christ dwelling in you and you in Christ”, echoing Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches, each a living part of the other so that the vine might bear much fruit. This Christ would mean nothing without Jesus behind it. But as an archetype, it lies deep within the human psyche. It has a dynamic that offers a new way of being, empowering and energising right at people’s core.

The Christ, then, is Christianity’s archetype of the lover, the caregiver, the visionary, and the one who sets free, working out in acts of love and grace, and transforming lives. Other world faiths have their equivalents, and whatever name they give it – such as the Buddha within – it’s the same primordial motif or experience they’re drawing on. And as archetypes, they belong normally and naturally within the framework of the human thought-world that spans every age, including our own.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Engagement With North Korea Works

by Kerri Kennedy                    Common Dreams                     July 19, 2017

With a little will, both sides can take small steps to ratchet down the pressure — and avoid a war. 'We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy,' writes Kennedy, 'and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at an all-time high — and continue to escalate following North Korea’s test of a missile that can supposedly reach Alaska. It’s still possible to turn down the heat with small steps that could lead to more robust diplomacy later on. But this requires the political will to engage instead of trading threats. "Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war."

While the Trump administration once signaled an interest in diplomatic engagement, since then their saber rattling has pushed us even closer to the brink of war. There’s another, better way forward. Observers have noted that when the U.S. has opened lines of engagement, North Korean missile tests have been scaled back or stopped all together. Simply put, engagement works. open lines of dialogue. Addressing humanitarian concerns, for example, could lead to political progress, as it has between the U.S. and other countries.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of engagement to open important doors. I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization that’s had a presence on the Korean peninsula since 1953, when we responded to calls for refugee assistance. In particular, AFSC is one of the few U.S.-based organizations that’s kept a presence in the North since the 1980s, and we’ve done it through exchanges of delegations hoping to reduce tensions.

When famine struck we sprung into action. Because we’d opened lines of communication and identified the crisis early on, we were ideally positioned to help. Since the end of the famine, we’ve been working with farmers in the region on sustainable agriculture practices. Ours has been the most continuous example of a successful relationship between U.S and North Korean-based organizations. And we’ve seen that engagement lead directly to opportunities to address a humanitarian crisis and save lives. Peer-to-peer exchanges like those we participate in have the potential to open diplomatic lines of communication. But this requires a willingness to do the work of engagement from those in political power.

What other options might be on the table? Retrieving U.S. veterans’ remains from North Korea and reunifying Korean families divided by the war are both important and viable. Hhumanitarian issues that need to be addressed before time runs out, as survivors of the Korean War are aging. Working together on those goals could prime the pump for further diplomacy. Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war. We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy, and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

We know what we need to do to begin to address this conflict in a productive, non-violent manner. What we need now instead of military threats is the political will for real engagement. [Abridged]

A collection of quotes

To hide behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an act of fallacious sophistry. Toasters don’t make toast, people make toast. True. But toasters exist to make toast: guns exist to kill people. [Gary Younge, Guardian 6/2/2017]

Thomas Merton: You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. [Quoted by Revd Brenda Rockell] 

Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up in yours and we can only be human together.”

Wilfred Owen:
“Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Cultural Divides:
“Whether that’s an ethnic or a religious divide, or to do with gender or politics, there are power-mongers at every level of society, who succeed best when they demonise the ‘other’."  Brenda Rockell

“If Thou humblest Thyself Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.”

Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks:
Four months after Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island he came to Detroit as part of a U.S. trip to promote sanctions against the South African government… Mandela came off the plane amidst the cheering crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers, and froze when he saw Mrs Parks. Slowly he began walking towards her chanting “RO-SA PARKS! RO-SA PARKS! The two seasoned freedom fighters embraced.” [From “The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, P. 231 Highly recommended.]

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jesus or Christ?

By Ian Harris                 Otago Daily Times               July 14, 2017 

It’s not either/or, says Ian Harris – both are central to Christianity. 

At a Progressive Spirituality conference in Napier last year the keynote speaker, Dr Robin Meyers of Oklahoma City, ended his final address by asking: “Are you followers of Jesus, or worshippers of Christ?”

The question was well received. Many Christians today think following Jesus is quite sufficient, thank you, so are not drawn to worship Christ. This has led to a significant movement in some churches away from any serious contemplation of the Christ. In those churches the emphasis is on living the Jesus way, which its adherents find both appealing and relevant. Jesus they can relate to, a good man, a superlative teacher, a sage – such a pity their religion is identified as “Christianity”, a name derived from the Christ.

Game, set and match? Not quite. I asked Meyers afterwards what lay behind his question. “Well,” he said, “on the one hand you have the man Jesus and his teaching about bringing in the kingdom of God here on Earth, on the other a divine Christ who was born of a virgin, performed one miracle after another, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven.”

I said I wasn’t enamoured of that either – but what if the Christ was rather Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation, and therefore the inner dynamic for living the Jesus way? Meyers said he had no problem with that at all. Which left me wondering why he set up the alternatives in the way he had. After all, the gospels attribute all those stories about a virgin birth, miracles of healing and supernatural power, bodily resurrection and ascension, to Jesus, not Christ. So how come Meyers and others insist on dislodging them from Jesus and heaping them on to the Christ? 

The title “Christ” is used mainly in the four gospels to refer to the leader Jews longed for, commissioned by God to free them from subjection to Rome, restore their unique identity as a people, and bring in God’s rule. That’s highly political and down-to-earth, not evidence of divinity and the supernatural.

Some sleight of mind seemed to be happening here. Actually, “Jesus” and “Christ” are both intrinsic to the New Testament as a whole. The significance of each individually is indelibly linked to the other, but they lose something when treated as if they were just alternative names for the same person. They need to be uncoupled, first to appreciate Jesus in the fullness of his humanity, and then to discern why his earliest followers found it appropriate to claim him as “mashiach” or messiah, or in Greek “Christ”. That happened primarily as they tried to make sense of their experience of Jesus, especially the shock of his crucifixion – and then, somehow, their continuing experience of him. 

This was the earliest period of Christianity, when Jesus’ Jewish followers were still part of the synagogue and worship was steeped in the Jewish scriptures. That setting goes far to explain why they came to regard Jesus as their messiah. Their scriptures told them of others who had been “anointed” (that’s what “mashiach” means) to lofty tasks of leadership as kings or high priests. There was even a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, accorded the title. Nearly 600 years before Jesus’ time, Cyrus had freed Jews long held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return home. He was their deliverer, to Jews a messiah.

The apostle Paul had a prime role in developing the vision of Jesus as messiah, and today some see this as perverting Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God. Rather than promoting the kingdom as such, he preached Jesus as its harbinger, using the Greek word for anointed, “christos” or Christ. It is a matter of historical fact that Christianity took root as a religion because Jesus and his teaching were conveyed more through the imaginative possibilities of a universalised messiah or Christ than the bare memory and wisdom of Jesus’ teaching.

Some scholars surmise that without the Christ concept, the Jesus movement would have faded away by about 500 AD, like many other groups of his day. Paul took Jesus and all he represented and projected them into the future through gatherings of people in which Jesus was felt to be dynamically present as the messiah or Christ. If psychiatrist Carl Jung’s term “archetype” had been around, Paul might well have used it, because that’s very much in tune with his thinking. Such a link carries the Christ concept forward into our own day and age – more on that next time

NRA Issues Call for White Supremacy and Armed Insurrection

By Bill Moyers, Michael Winship 30 June, 2017 Pub. Common Dreams

The gun lobby's new "recruitment ad" is really a call for white supremacy and armed insurrection, deliberately crafted to stir anger and fear. Take a look at the ad below and ask whether the National Rifle Association can go any lower. Ponder this flagrant call for violence, this insidious advocacy of hate delivered with a sneer, this threat of civil war, this despicable use of propaganda to arouse rebellion against the rule of law and the ideals of democracy.

On the surface this is a recruitment video for the National Rifle Association. But what you are really about to see is a call for white supremacy and armed insurrection, each word and image deliberately chosen to stir the feral instincts of troubled souls who lash out in anger and fear:

Disgusting. Dishonorable. Dangerous. But also deliberate. Everything deplored by the NRA in the ad is committed by “they” — a classic manipulation turning anyone who disagrees with your point of view into “The Other” — something alien, evil, foreign. “They use their media to assassinate real news,” “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler,” “They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.” “And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance.”

This is the vitriol that has been spewed like garbage since the days of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blasted from lynch mobs and demagogues and fascistic factions of political parties that turn racial and religious minorities into grotesque caricatures, the better to demean and diminish and dominate.

It is the nature of such malevolent human beings to hate those whom they have injured, and the NRA has enabled more injury to more marginalized and vulnerable people than can be imagined. Note how the words “guns” or “firearms” are never mentioned once in the ad and yet we know that the NRA is death on steroids. And behind it are the arms merchants who profit from selling automatic rifles to deranged people who shoot down politicians playing intramural baseball, or slaughter children in their classrooms in schools named Sandy Hook, or who massacre black folks at Bible study in a Charleston church, or murderously infiltrate a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Watching this expertly produced ad, we thought of how the Nazis produced slick propaganda like this to demonize the Jews, round up gypsies and homosexuals, foment mobs, burn books, crush critics, justify torture and incite support for state violence.

It’s the crack in the Liberty Bell, this ad: the dropped stitch in the American flag, the dregs at the bottom of the cup of freedom. It’s a Trump-sized lie invoked to bolster his base, discredit critics, end dissent. Joseph McCarthy must be smiling in hell at such a powerful incarnation on earth of his wretched, twisted soul.

With this savage ad, every Democrat, every liberal, every person of color, every immigrant or anyone who carries a protest sign or raises a voice in disagreement becomes a target in the diseased mind of some tormented viewer. Heavily armed Americans are encouraged to lock and load and be ready for the ballistic solution to any who oppose the systematic looting of Washington by an authoritarian regime led by a deeply disturbed barracuda of a man who tweets personal insults, throws tantrums and degrades everything he touches.

Look again at the ad. Ask yourself: What kind of fools are they at the NRA to turn America into a killing ground for sport? To be choked with hate is a terrible fate, and it is worst for those on whom it is visited. Take one more look, and ask: Why do they get away with it? What is happening to us? How long do we have before the fire this time?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Angela Merkel shows how the leader of the free world should act

Suzanne Moore                  Guardian/UK                 30 May 2017

There’s a statesmanship – a vision, a morality and a core – to her that was thrown into sharp relief by Donald Trump’s shambling visit to Europe

Angela Merkel – or “leader of the free world” as she is now to be known – did not wait long to see the back of Donald Trump before she made it clear that things have changed. She told a rally of 2,500 people in Munich where she kicked off her campaign to be re-elected that the EU must now be prepared to look after itself, that it could no longer depend on the UK or America. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over … I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans have to take fate into our own hands.”

This is a truly dramatic statement from a leader who doesn’t do drama. She is not going to be holding Trump’s hand any time soon. He may be relieved to hear that, but then the underestimation of Merkel as a dowdy physicist has often allowed her to run rings around egotistical male leaders.

It was said to be a coincidence that she met Barack Obama the same day as Trump. It took a while for her to establish a friendship with Obama. She apparently disliked the “atmospherics” around him when he was first elected and wanted a more “conversational” relationship. She got it.

Watching her at the G7, her statesmanship, her ease, her ability to broker deals and relationships is ever more impressive. More and more I hear people say they that they like her. Even those on the left respect her though she is a centrist. While Trump shambled around Europe with his goon display of ignorance of other languages, cultures or even basic manners, Merkel was in her element. While he was trailing behind in a golf cart as he lacked the stamina to actually walk anywhere at all, she strode out with the other leaders.

Every gif of Trump shows him vacantly bumbling away, arrogantly shoving or being batted away by Melania. Gifs of Merkel, on the other hand, are a delight: her bemused expression when she has to deal with him, that twinkle, that little shrug she gives. She is at the top of her game – a game he has no idea how to play. Vladimir Putin knew she was afraid of dogs, so brought a labrador to meet her on 2007. She didn’t flinch, later observing: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man … He’s afraid of his own weakness.” No wonder Emmanuel Macron pulled off that wonderful swerve last week walking straight to Trump but greeting Merkel first.

Of course not everyone likes her. The Irish, the Portuguese, the Greeks, the Spanish and the Italians have felt the force of her pushing through stark austerity measures as the price of EU membership. At one point Greek protesters portrayed her with a Hitler moustache. Her expansionary politics, whereby every other country should seek to be as wealthy as Germany, have come at a huge price to countries she sees as fiscally irresponsible. Critics in Germany say she achieved a kind of “paralysed consent”. They complain about the number of opinion polls she has commissioned and her methodical, scientific way of dealing with politics. et this, in reality, is why Mutti is considered so good at crisis management. Theatrics don’t interest her but there is a vision, a morality, a core to her that meant she could push through a policy of taking in refugees that required real guts.

Asked if she was a feminist while sitting next to Ivanka Trump, Ivanka immediately raised her hand to say she was, and Merkel, who has done so much for women, hesitated and then said: “If you think that I am one, go and vote on it.” Friends say that she always considered herself emancipated by her studies and growing up in East Germany, where it was normal for women to work. Her husband, professor of theoretical chemistry Joachim Sauer, needs no security. They lead an unshowy life. The pictures of Merkel nipping out for chips, ecstatic at the football, drinking beer, are not set up. It’s what she does, though she no longer smokes or bites her nails to the quick in the way she did when she was younger. This all added to the geekiness that helped her to rise up through the party.

And look where she is now, unlike our prime minister, able to oppose Trump directly and to say his America is not a friend of Europe. What an extraordinary woman. There are no problems, she says, only “tasks” to be solved, as she sits rapidly texting in meetings. Refusing to see herself as a female leader, she prefers to think of herself as part of a class of political heavyweights. Increasingly she is in a class of her own and watching her, one thought comes to mind: this is what strong and stable actually looks like.

Saying 'enough is enough' is to misunderstand terrorism completely

Waleed Aly                   The Age                 8 June 2017

Terrorism once seemed isolated, each attack hitting us like a massive thud, now it is a drum beat: steady, regular, some whacks combining to form a relentless sound track to our time. The exasperation is thorough, real and pervasive. You probably said those words to yourself well before you heard May say them. “Enough is enough.”

But they're also misleading. "Enough is enough" implies a level of control. It's what you say to a misbehaving child just as you decide it's finally time to impose a punishment. It's what you say when you decide to quit the job you hate. But terrorism is nothing like that. It does not exist merely because we haven't yet decided to extinguish it.

To see this, consider that we've been saying this kind of thing more or less since the September 11 attacks. That, you will recall, was meant to be the moment that changed the world, that ushered in a new war unlike anything we've seen. "There was before 9/11 and after 9/11", explained a former CIA director of counterterrorism. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." So we rushed off to two interminable wars. And we've been taking gloves off ever since, introducing new counterterrorism legislation to a drum beat of our own, steadily expanding the power of the state, and its ability to gather intelligence. Still the attacks come. Indeed, they increase.

Australian counterparts haven't quite got to the point of adopting Nazi terminology, but we're flirting with the internment idea. Here it takes the form of proposing special courts for terror suspects in which they can be held indefinitely precisely because we lack the evidence to convict, as both Tony Abbott and retired army general Jim Molan did this week. To be fair, Molan refused internment as a description of this, accepting the "appalling back story" that word implies. But we are talking about incarcerating people on suspicion and without trial. With respect, I'm not sure what else to call that.

"We are at war" tweeted one of Sunrise's regular commentators – who was quite prepared to call it internment – by way of support, as though it was some urgent, original diagnosis. But we've been using that exact phrase, and building policy on it, since at least September 12, 2001. This approach has failed because it has always made the same fundamental miscalculation that terrorism is some more-or-less static, finite evil that can be isolated and destroyed. When Katie Hopkins says "we need to start incarcerating, deporting, repeating until we clean this country up" she's imagining a day when the last potential terrorist is imprisoned, where we've finally caught all the bad guys, and anyone we think might one day become one.

But when the attacks continue because some 14-year-old kid wasn't on the radar, or because authorities monitored someone and decided he wasn't a serious risk, we'll then expand the circle. Even the most fleeting levels of suspicion will become enough grounds for detention. Then, when that doesn't finish it, we'll go for people we think should have known about an attack on suspicion they're supporters of terrorism. Eventually, we'll decide it's all too hard sorting the benign from the malignant and propose the internment of Muslims altogether. This, after all, is the logical extension of the idea of banning Muslim immigration. And then, when potential terrorists start masquerading as non-Muslims to avoid incarceration, what will we do?

What exactly is our end point here? Because there will always be a case to make. Take Iran: an awesomely brutal security state that has shown no compunction in imprisoning and torturing dissenters, and which defines its security threats extremely broadly. However tough we might want to be on terrorism, we will surely never match that. And yet Iran has just now witnessed a major IS terrorist attack of its own, despite being an overwhelmingly Shiite nation scarcely known for housing masses of IS supporters. The truth is that while hard police power is important, the track record of governments trying to eliminate terrorism predominantly by force isn't an encouraging one.

That's because at terrorism's heart is the narrative that sustains it. That narrative is itself a complex of things: social circumstances, an array of grievances and crucially, an ideology that makes these things coherent and directs that anger towards an enemy. Islamism is currently potent because it does this so efficiently. You can't imprison that potency out of existence. You can only try to make it ring less true, so fewer and fewer people are attracted to it. And given one of Islamism's most common conspiratorial motifs is that Western societies are out to destroy Islam and will never accept Muslims, the road to internment seems a fraught one to walk. We're fortunate for now such ideas are marginal in our politics. But we're heading that way unless we can at some point look at our instinctive, visceral responses and say enough is enough. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Faith Evolves

Ian Harris                      Otago Daily News                   May 12, 2017

I was startled to learn recently that I’m engaged in a war on truth. Really? I thought I was engaged in a search for truth. But no, one Paul Thomas, writing in The Listener, declares that “the biggest battalions in the war on truth are those deployed by religion”. That’s because it “elevates belief above rationality and groupthink above independence of mind”.

He then fires the same broadside at religion’s “secular equivalent ideology” (is there only one?). Both, he says, make claims that defy logic, cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and impose the mindset that “if you have commitment to the cause, you won’t need evidence to know these claims are true”. Then the clincher, a Dawkinsesque recourse to “a fundamentalist Christian who believes Earth was created 5000 years ago and Adam and Eve were real people”.

Poor Mr Thomas, bobbing blithely on his backwater! Apparently he is unaware that a progressive theological current has been running within all the mainstream churches for more than a century, and thinking has moved a long way from the dogmatic bunkers of the past. Doesn’t he believe in evolution, which includes the evolution of Christian thought? But he’s not alone. A letter-writer asserted in this newspaper that in Christianity truth has never mattered very much, and tilts at the Bible as “essentially just a collection of fables, full of nonsense”.

It isn’t, actually. It’s a 1000-year record that shows people of integrity wrestling with the great questions of life – meaning, purpose, destiny – in light of the knowledge and understanding of their own times. They teased those questions out in myth, poetry, song, drama, parable, history, law, ethics, philosophy, teaching, preaching, interpretation. In other words, their Bible is a very human book – and a model for moderns to do likewise in our vastly changed world. To literalise the myths, as some conservative Christians and the letter-writer do, is to miss the mark by a country mile.

Reflecting on such distortions, Irish-American theologian John Dominic Crossan says the point is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”. Yes, there are churches still stuck on the reefs of medieval beliefs about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, and they give oxygen to those who dismiss religion on grounds of rationality and logic. I share a distaste for that style of religion, but it’s far from the whole picture.

So why do the critics focus solely on that segment of the spectrum? Is it too much trouble, in pursuit of truth, to see the Christian enterprise in all its diversity, and see it whole? Their approach is akin to judging science by its capacity to build nuclear weapons and wage biological warfare, while ignoring its advances in medicine, astronomy, transport, communications and much else. Besides, finding meaning and purpose in life, and determining the values that will be central to the way one lives, was never a science project, and isn’t now.

Rationality is one platform for this, but the search also draws on emotion, imagination, creativity, dreaming. How very human! The knowledge explosion of the past 200 years does not jettison the deep human wisdom of the ages, as if nothing counted until we came along, but provides a basis for re-interpreting and re-integrating that wisdom in the light of new knowledge. There is truth for living that is different from the truths of scientific experiment and discovery. And that is the sphere of religion.

All that is meat and drink to those on the liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum, looking to the future rather than trying to shore up the past. The modern world poses questions about aspects of the tradition that once seemed self-evident truths, but may now be regarded as the cultural embroidery of a past age, centred as it was on a theistic God, a supernatural reality, a heavenly after-life. The quest for truth leads many Christians to quietly abandon those assumptions, and build on new understandings that make sense within their secular world.

Christianity then comes down to earth with a bump, and is freed to evolve in fresh ways. It’s all less tidy now, but the motive power is still the same: a truth for living based on relationships impelled by love, respect, freedom and concern. That is central to what the apostle Paul means by “living in Christ” – which is the beating heart of the Christian lifestyle

Corbyn is Right - Manchester was linked to British foreign policy

Simon Jenkins                Guardian/UK                26 May 2017

We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us, claiming our motive was ‘to keep terror off the streets of Britain’

Jeremy Corbyn is
perfectly right to relate this week’s Manchester terrorist atrocity to British foreign policy in the Middle East. Whenever Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron struggled to explain why British blood and finance had to go on toppling regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, they were explicit: it was “to prevent terrorism in the streets of Britain”. The reason was given over and over again: to suppress militant Islam.

When that policy clearly leads to an increase in Islamist terrorism, we are entitled to agree with Corbyn that it has “simply failed”. Regimes were indeed toppled. Tens of thousands died, many of them civilians every bit as innocent as Manchester’s victims. Terrorism has not stopped.

Whenever al-Qaida or Isis seek to explain their atrocities, reference is usually made to British intervention and the military killing of innocent Muslims. It is mendacious to try to sanitise our overheated and jingoistic response to domestic terrorism by pretending that it is unrelated to British foreign policy. It was we who made the link, and before the terrorists did.

Of course this does not exonerate anyone. Yes, militant Islamists are seeking to subvert the west’s sense of security and its liberal values. Yes, the west’s continued bombing of markets, hospitals, weddings and villages is “accidental” – albeit inevitable, given the nature of modern air war.

But we used the language of “
shock and awe” in bombing Baghdad in 2003. We gave the current era of Islamist terrorism a cause, a reason, an excuse, however perverted. We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us.

Where Corbyn spoils his pitch is in relating terrorism not just to foreign policy but to domestic austerity. He stoops to Theresa May’s level in seeking to make electoral capital from a tragedy. Were he not grandstanding himself, he could accuse her of peddling the politics of fear by flooding the streets of the capital with soldiers. He could plead with the Muslim community to do more to combat and expose terrorist “grooming”. But there is no evidence that the security services are impeded in their work by staff shortages. It is the one aspect of policing that has been showered with money.

Politicians who exploit moments of public tragedy play a risky game. Whether Corbyn was tactful to return to the election campaign by citing
Manchester is moot: he would have been wise to wait a few days. But Islamist terrorism is related to foreign policy. However hateful it may seem to us, it is a means to a political end. Sometimes it is as well to call a spade a spade.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Religious Diversity

By Ian Harris                             Otago Daily Times                         May 13, 2016

Colonised New Zealand began as a largely homogeneous Christian society, remaining so until well into last century. Now the reverse is true: in terms of religion, our society has become one of the most diverse in the world. Resented, this diversity will exacerbate division and hostility. Welcomed, it will help provide the social cement of trust which people in a globalising world sorely need, in a way that economic integration, currently all the rage, never could.

All it requires is acknowledging “the dignity of difference” – which happens to be the title of an important book by the former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. Religion has a vital role to play in shaping the way ahead. Some will look at history and object that religious difference has actually fomented antagonism around the world, especially when used to reinforce the social, economic and political domination of one group over another. Invariably, that has resulted from an abuse of power, in denial of a tenet affirmed by every major faith: Always treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Christians and Muslims have the worst record here. Think of the crusades, Catholic Spain’s expulsion of Muslims and of Jews, the mutual bigotry of Irish Protestants and Catholics, and in today’s world, Muslim intolerance of Christians in much of the Middle East, and outright persecution by extremists in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.

Adherents of other faiths are not blameless. Hindus have sacked Christian churches in India. In Myanmar, Buddhists seek to suppress Christian and Muslim minorities. While their motivation is basically nationalistic and political, they invoke religion to cloak their prejudice in a mantle of sacred duty. Add to that some people’s Dawkinsesque intolerance of anything religious at all, and you have the makings of a witches’ brew of discord.

To that there is a religious answer, and people of every faith, and even of none, are called on to contribute to it. From a faith standpoint, Lord Sacks explains why: “Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to his presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.” It is therefore essential to let go of any sense that all would be well if only everyone could be crammed into the same mould (your own, of course): “The test of faith,” says Lord Sacks, “is whether I can make space for difference.”

In light of that, it should come as a relief that there are those who see New Zealand as potentially a role model for religious diversity in the world at large. That was given form and focus in March through the launch at Parliament of the Religious Diversity Centre in New Zealand. It expands on a variety of local interfaith groups, but does not replace them.

The professor of religious studies at Victoria University, Paul Morris, reminded the gathering that New Zealand had moved from being 91 per cent Christian in the 1961 census to around 50 per cent in 2013, while those declaring “no religion” had risen from 5.5 to around 40 per cent. We now have sizeable Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities, and nearly a quarter of a million members of religions other than Christian.

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Centre ranked New Zealand 19th among 232 countries and territories for religious diversity, above Australia, Belgium, France, Britain, Germany and the United States. Most diverse is Singapore. Prof Morris said such diversity could either threaten social cohesion or be an enormous positive resource for social harmony. But its positive value had to be consciously developed.

Studies showed many professing “no religion” nevertheless say they are “spiritual” and interested in religious issues. Also, perhaps counter-intuitively, members of religious communities are more likely to be open to people of other faiths than the “nones”. Presumably they know the value of faith for their own identity, so can value it in others. As Lord Sacks observes: “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”

The new centre will carry out research, offer training in religious diversity, educate, give policy advice, and comment on relevant public issues. Launching the centre, patron Helen Clark said: “The world badly needs voices of reason and tolerance and people who will work to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. I do believe that New Zealand can show the way.” Let’s prove her right.

Anzac Day 2017

On Anzac Day this year there was the usual commemoration of the cost of war, as our soldiers who did not return were remembered. And as usual there was some attempt to assure us that we are still protecting our way of life with the traditional means of defence. It is understood that continued peace depends on our readiness to make a similar sacrifice in the future, if another threat should descend on us or our allies. 

I have usually been absent from Anzac Day celebrations, not because I am less concerned about the loss of so many young lives from our shores, but rather because it leaves out, in total silence, the many more millions across the world, who suffered from this great turmoil of contending forces striving for domination. Who spares a thought for them? The civilians, young and old, of nations swept along by imperial overlords, and those wearing the wrong uniforms. Who cares what happened to them?

Here and there, when peace on earth has been the main focus, these forgotten human elements have been briefly mentioned. But they are the collateral damage that always accompanies war. If we care about them we must recognize that war is our chief enemy and theirs.

This year a small group of peace-minded young and old decided to meet, without any display of war weapons, about three hundred yards below the Museum where the much larger memorial service was taking place. Here justice, twin brother or at least close relative of peace, got more than a brief mention from the bevy of speakers. These included the Imam of an Islamic group in South Auckland.

A Muslim? Yes. A missing name from most Anzac Day services. Muslims were on the opposite side at Gallipoli, and in some quarters are being groomed for a similar role in a new conflict. That fact alone should alert us to the need for concern, and some action to follow. So here I ask you to consider a slightly abbreviated account of what Imam Shafiq of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at NZ presented to us on Anzac Day 2017. 
-Arthur Palmer

Assalamu Alaikum… kia tau te rangimarie ki a koutou. May peace be with you. I am humbled and privileged to be part of this Prayers for Peace Service as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a revival movement within Islam. I begin with a Prayer from the Holy Qur’an:

“All praise belongs to God, Lord of all the worlds,
The Gracious, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment,
Thee alone do we worship, and Thee alone do we implore for help.
Guide us in the right path… Amen

As today commemorates those killed in war and war veterans, and our prayers are with them as well as all the innocent civilians killed, it reminds us the importance of peace all the more. A time when the conflicts around the world are spiralling, and the fears resulting in a global catastrophe are increasing every day, there is a great need for every section of society to gather their energies and efforts and prayers for peace in the world at large. We must commend Church in Progress for organising today’s event.

Islam teaches us to like for others what you like for yourself. This golden principle is also enshrined in the teachings of some other faiths. Therefore, as believers we should be united and we should ensure that our efforts within our circles are for peace to prevail over all regions of the world. Regrettably, in many parts of the world, far greater is priority is being given, either directly or indirectly, towards asserting dominance and satisfying a craving for power and authority. I must condemn the evil acts and crimes against humanity of certain so-called Islamic groups. I do not know how to assure you that the barbaric acts of ISIS and other terrorist groups and individuals are totally in violation of the true Islamic teachings.

Reading the outline of the day… I found a mention of the production of weapons of terrible destruction. It is sad that despite all the conflicts and bloodshed in different parts of the world, mainly the Middle East, the major powers of the world are concerned only with their business interests, and they have continued to sell millions of dollars’ worth of heavy weaponry to the warring parties. All they care about is that their cheques clear so that billions are added to their own national budgets. In short, money talks and morality is left nowhere to be seen. We are living in a world of duality and double standards, especially when we look at world politics and the role of the world powers. Can we still hope for peace? As believers we never lose hope. But we must work harder and pray harder for world peace. 

-Shafiq ur Rehman (Imam), Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at NZ 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The cause of death that dare not speak its name: austerity

Gary Younge                    Guardian/UK                     15 April 2017 

The reasons for knife crime are complex, but it’s wrong to ignore the impact of cuts to youth funding.

On Monday Cedric Anderson, the estranged husband of a special education teacher, Karen Smith, walked into her
primary school classroom in San Bernardino, California, and shot dead both her and eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez; injured two other children; and then fatally shot himself. Martinez was the 67th child under the age of 11 to be shot dead in America this year. (Four more have been killed since then.) Smith, who had married Anderson just a few months earlier, was just one of the estimated 50 women in the US to be shot dead by a current or former partner each month. Of the 91 mass shootings so far this year, almost one a day, all of those where the identity of the shooter is known were committed by men.

Every day in America, on average, seven children and teens are shot dead.
While writing a book exploring the gun fatalities on one random day, I asked every family who I reached an open-ended question about what they thought was driving such shootings. Not a single one volunteered the answer “guns”. I concluded that many I spoke to regarded guns as one might regard traffic, if your child were knocked down – as the regrettable, tragic price one pays for living in modern society, about which little can be done. Similarly, when mass shootings take place commentators will discuss a range of issues – religion, gang affiliation, mental health and race – but masculinity rarely comes up. It’s simply been so factored in to our understanding of how the world works that it escapes scrutiny.

It’s as though once a certain pain threshold has been breached plausible explanations cease to register. People will walk a mile to avoid the evidence right in front of their nose, either because they don’t like it or, more often, because to deal with the underlying issues would demand a conversation for which there is no “public language”: when things aren’t being discussed, it’s hard to find a way to talk about them.

Inured to the obvious, the familiar becomes banal and ultimately invisible even as it stands in plain sight. “Who hears a clock tick, or the surf murmur, or the trains pass?” wrote James Kilpatrick in the early sixties, explaining why white American southerners were so wedded to segregation. “Not those who live by the clock or the sea or the track.”

The day after Martinez and Smith were killed, two Londoners were stabbed to death within 90 minutes of each other, making
three knife fatalities in the capital within a 48-hour period. By the end of the week the Metropolitan police had released its annual figures for last year, revealing a 24% increase in knife crime. National figures, which will soon follow, are likely to show a less pronounced but nonetheless sustained uptick in knife crime.

There have over the years been a number of explanations for both the existence, prevalence and growth in knife crime among the young. David Cameron laid some of the responsibility
on BBC Radio 1 and its hip-hop output; Tony Blair just came straight out and blamed black kids: “We won’t stop this by pretending it isn’t young black kids doing it.” Gangs, drugs, culture, lenient sentencing, absent fathers, police being too sensitive to be effective – and police being insufficiently sensitive to be trusted – have all been suggested at various times. In an editorial this week the London Evening Standard argued: “education and better parenting, coupled with greater responsibility from the minority of retailers who still sell knives to juveniles, offer the best solutions.”

Some of these explanations make sense. (Drugs, for example, have been a factor at some points.) Some are nonsense. (Britain’s parenting, for example, hasn’t suddenly become worse.)

Race appears to be a false flag.
National statistics that break down knife crime by ethnicity are not publicly available. Research indicates that once social class is taken into account, black kids are no more likely to be involved than their white counterparts. Of the 11 children and teens who have been killed by knives so far this year, most have been white – but in the national press the term “knife crime” has only been used when black people are killed.

But it seems there is one enduring explanation for why things have been deteriorating among young people in particular in recent years: austerity. In 2011, the government
scrapped the education maintenance allowance, the £30 weekly grant to low-income students who are in school or college. Funding for the education of 16- to 19-year-olds fell by 14% in real terms between 2010 and 2014, leaving sixth-form colleges struggling for survival. Since 2010 there has been a £387m cut in youth services, and between 2012 and 2016 603 youth clubs were closed. In London, £28m has been slashed from youth services budgets in the last five years, leading to 36 youth centres in the capital closing. A starved NHS is unable to adequately provide mental health assistance to the young. The government now plans to cut funding to schools in urban areas.

Once the government has made the political choices that effectively produce a crisis, it then expects the police to establish order and calm over the instability. Only
it’s cutting the police too. “We’re leading to a very serious conclusion regarding the potentially perilous state of policing,” said ZoĆ« Billingham, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, recently. “It’s a red flag that we’re raising at this stage. A large red flag.”

Police say that young people who are carrying knives increasingly
do so not through gang affiliation but for protection; youth workers say they are scared and don’t trust the police to protect them. In short, as a nation we are actively and consciously underfunding our kids.

Few would make the claim that there is a direct, seamless, causal link between these cuts and the rise in violent crime. Government policy does not put a knife in a child’s hand and encourage them to use it. But any insistence on personal responsibility must be weighed against the collective responsibility societies assume when it comes to keeping children safe.

Nor could anyone reasonably claim that this is the exclusive reason for the increase – the causes of knife crime are multilayered and complex and
it was trending down for the first few years of the coalition before its recent rise.

But as the cuts go deeper, leaving vulnerable people more desperate, the contextual connection is compelling. If you make it harder for young people to stay in education, harder for them to get treatment if they are mentally ill, harder for them to find safe and productive places to spend leisure time with each other and with adults who are trained to work with them, then we should not be surprised to see an increase in social problems among the young – including social violence in general and knife crime in particular. Austerity has become such an established feature of our political economy that many are becoming blind to its ramifications. Keep tightening the belt by degrees for long enough and we forget why it is we are struggling to breathe.

In all sorts of ways we are creating obstacles for our young people to succeed, and in so doing setting too many of them up for failure. In this particularly gruesome way, we are seeing the results.

Consumerist god reigns supreme

Ian Harris                        Otago Daily Times                13 April 2017                   
What’s the point of society taking time out to celebrate Easter when its true devotion is to the greatest of all contemporary gods: consumerism? That is, to a credo where human purpose is focused on getting more and more, and human fulfilment is measured by the possessions we accumulate.

A token of this is Parliament’s genuflection to the consumerist god by allowing local councils to open the door to tinkling tills on Easter Sunday, and the number of communities opting to do so. Nothing, it seems, should get in the way of the sacred duty to make money.

Till now, and still for those communities that have chosen to live by a different standard, Easter Sunday has been a public sign that there are other values for men and women to live by, other approaches to the great questions of life, meaning and purpose. For those willing to stop and reflect, Good Friday and Easter Sunday will remain such.

Church folk have sometimes blurred the issue by defending Easter closures as protecting a religious privilege validated by an obsolete supernaturalism, instead of promoting a response to those great questions in a way that engages the open-minded among religious and nonreligious alike. It’s too late for that now, and where Easter Sunday drifts slowly away on the tide of commerce, Good Friday and Christmas Day will one day logically follow. The consumerist god, worshipped enthusiastically in hymns praising freedom, choice, even basic rights, is all-consuming. It will not be content until people are at last enslaved by their possessions, for it is those that are increasingly reshaping our values and thus, ever so surreptitiously, how we choose to live.

American priest Matthew Fox, advocate of “original blessing” instead of original sin, sees consumerism as a modern idolatry. “Indeed, our very economic system, to the extent that it creates and whips up consumer fetishes, is running on idolatry,” he says. This is because it flourishes on the view that the acquisition of more and more goodies will somehow satisfy the deep longing of the human heart – “even if such idolatrous buying results in other people going hungry or the earth itself being exploited, species rendered extinct, and climate change raising the seas, destroying cities and homes and the future for our great-great-grandchildren. “Such idol-worship fails to satisfy the heart. But dissatisfaction is at the heart of economic idolatry – it feeds the machines of advertising to keep us buying. And buying. And buying. The addiction of shopping is a special form of idolatry, born of consumer capitalism.”

So there is more to freedom and choice than being able to shop on the traditional holy-days. Indeed, Easter itself is about freedom, choice and basic rights – but on a level that leaves consumerism for dead. It is the freedom, choice and right to be more, not have more. And it springs from a very different vision of what human happiness and fulfilment are all about.

At the heart of this vision is a concern for relationships. Accordingly, the churches have interpreted Easter in a variety of ways over the centuries. Traditionally, emphasis on a theistic God has been central, so the focus was the individual’s relationship to that God. Befouling that relationship was people’s sin, which led to guilt and fanned the fear of hell. Jesus’ death on the cross, however, could cancel their sin, absolve them from guilt, and assure an after-life in heaven.

In a world where heaven and hell were believed to be as real as Earth, and the church’s narrative fitted neatly within it, immersing oneself within that framework made sense. It brought genuine release and newness of life, along with meaning, purpose and fulfilment. In the 21st century that imaginative superstructure has crumbled, so for many Christians, celebrating Easter within its confines is now impossible. They still celebrate, however, for the core meaning of the season remains constant in freedom, choice, and the right to be fully human, all underpinned by unconditional love.

Jesus was put to death because he ran foul of the power structures of temple and state. Yet out of that tragedy, and all that had preceded it, his followers found inspiration and opportunity – not to buy things whenever they felt like it, but of genuine choice in becoming new people. And they asserted the basic right of everyone to do the same in relationships where love, not money, is the touchstone. For that, “death to the old” and “resurrection to the new” are appropriate metaphors – and it’s got nothing to do with shop trading hours.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

My generation fought to be free. What happened to us?

Polly Toynbee                    Guardian/UK              4 April 2017    

We were the generation who won all those freedoms on sex, contraception, abortion, gay rights, divorce, who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship ... what’s happened to us? We stood for liberation. But our Brexit voting has revealed a great many things about ourselves we might prefer not to know. My generation and those older thought we were the avant garde; the tearers-down of barriers; freedom fighters for the
permissive society in the vanguard of progress.

What’s happened to us? The big baby boomer generation bears down on a shrinking proportion of the young. In attitudes, we are not ageing well. A
YouGov poll last week revealed how yearning for that imaginary 1950s golden age was a strong force that helped blow Britain out of the EU. Remember, 64% of over-65s voted for Brexit, while 71% of under-25s voted remain.

Yet the
anti-immigrant sentiment, much stronger among the old than the young, was only the topsoil on deeper strata of backward-looking aches among the old. Brexiters are 53% for bringing back the rope (supported by just 20% of remainers). Bring back beating in schools, say 42% of Brexiters (against just 14% of remainers). Three times more Brexiters than remainers would bring back incandescent lightbulbs, blue passports, imperial weights and measures and pre-decimal currency – which would fox anyone under 55.

At the last election, 20% more over-65s voted Tory than for Labour. Compare that to the under-30s who voted 4% more for Labour. YouGov finds
nearly three quarters of the over-65s would ban burqas (36% of the under 30s). A kindly 62% of the young think we have a moral obligation to refugees, a view shared by only 39% of the old. Same-sex marriage gets 83% support from the young, but just 46% of the over-65s. We who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship, capital and corporal punishment, who threw off hats, gloves and conventions to wear and think what we liked? But no doubt many of my generation never bought into what seemed like the spirit of the age: abolishing capital punishment was never popular.

My generation should count their blessings as the never-had-it-so-good
beneficiaries of the National Health Service, better schools and overseas travel, with new opportunities in that great upward sweep from blue to white collar work. Now most of us sit on the proceeds of decades of booming house prices, enriched by an unmerited, untaxed property windfall. True, the over-60s are twice as likely to give to charity as the under-30s, though generosity may be easier with more cash. Growing old, too many in my generation seem unwilling to share all that experience of progress they have enjoyed.

Of course the poorer old need and deserve all these supports, but the biggest cohort ever to retire on decent pensions still keep their universal perks. The extreme
£12bn benefit cuts starting this week take most money from young families and give 80% of tax cuts to the richest, leaving the poorest third considerably worse off. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts there will be 5.1 million children in poverty by 2020, up 50% – directly due to tax credit and working allowance cuts starting now. Those with children are hit hardest: children’s services, health visitors and schools cut back, yet universal pension perks are protected.

Of course the old never willed any harm to the young, and the real blame lies with the government’s draconian cuts, deliberately shared so unfairly. But the voting habits of the old are the underlying cause of a shift of wealth and income towards them and away from the impoverished young.

The one oddity is the care system, dysfunctional in every way and starved of funds, as described in a trenchant
Commons report last week. If the grey vote is so politically powerful, why doesn’t the social care crisis force the government to act? Partly because relatively few over-65s at any one time need care: many older voters don’t confront the crisis until their very last years, when the average time in residential care is two and a half years.

What do we do about my generation? They have the voting power but too many seem to lack awareness of their good luck. If Brexit further harms the life chances of the young, the old who voted for it will owe them serious recompense. [Abridged]