Of Greeks, Barbarians and smooth ball bearings

barbarianI write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.

Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.

There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.

Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.

In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.

Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.

Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!

The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?

It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.

The real political earthquake is still to come

Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.

Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.

Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.

This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.

Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.

So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.

We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?

Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.

In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Not all religions are the same

Courier article

I write this on the day after the attack by militant Muslims on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, where journalists, cartoonists and police were murdered in cold blood – all for the ‘crime’ of causing offence to the Prophet Muhammed. There is much lamentation at this turn of events and, worse, lots of cringeworthy hand-wringing from the politically correct and morally bankrupt who try to say that the cartoonists brought it on themselves, that perhaps they should have been more polite to the violent fascists. The contradictions in the modern secular West are bearing down upon us with a vengeance.

I have written before in these pages (September of 2012) about the ‘taking of offence’, and how that is understood as being a sin in Christianity, as it is a form of pride; and I have also pointed out in these pages (last November) that Jesus himself was often exceptionally rude, most often to those in positions of power and authority who were exploiting the poor and vulnerable. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Jesus had been gifted with the art of illustrating rather than the art of speaking then he would have portrayed the Pharisees of his day with images that were just as rude as those that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have produced.

After all, who are the people who are trying to rule by fear and intimidation? Of course we can point out all the ways in which the oppressive West acts with injustice in areas of the world, as we blindly allow the worship of Mammon to destroy all that makes for a joyful humanity. The point is, however, that we are able to say those things. The West has within itself the possibility of transformation. It is the very fact that we have a culture of open criticism that makes the culture of the West worth defending, even whilst admitting to its many and diverse sins.

What this campaign of intimidation against the West is trying to do is to force us to renounce our fundamental values, to put a boundary around what we can or cannot say. This is not something that the West can tolerate, on pain of self-dissolution. To be the West simply is to be the place where there is freedom of speech, where there is protection for the giving of offence. After all, where is the merit in allowing freedom of speech where that only applies to pleasant speech? No, it is precisely the speech that is rude and offensive and vulgar and obscene and blasphemous that is the speech that needs to be protected. It is only when that form of speech is protected that the dynamism at the heart of Western culture can flourish – and it is that dynamism which allows for so many of our blessings across so many different spheres.

This campaign of intimidation is not new. It has been in plain view for all astute observers since at least the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, and the origins run very deep in Islamic thought. This is not a campaign being waged by stupid people. On the contrary, the intellectual roots are profound and subtle, and not without merits from which we can learn. However, what we in the West need to decide is whether to confront the intimidation or to submit to it. In other words, do we actually wish to retain a culture which allows for freedom of speech or do we not? Let us not be in any doubt that this is what is at stake; that this battle has been waged for at least a generation; and – let us be very clear – we are losing.

After all, how many newspapers have published the ‘offensive’ cartoons this morning? Why so few? The answer is obvious – it is because they are afraid. They have already accepted the status of dhimmitude, which is the term given to those who are tolerated by Islam. Those who wish to subordinate the West can see that our cultural and political leaders lack the testicular fortitude required to stand up to intimidation, and so they pursue their course of action, confident of their eventual victory. They believe that the tide of history is with them and there is, as yet, very little evidence to say that their perception is wrong. They do not have to do much more – simply set the agenda of terror, and allow demographics to do the rest.

I have two questions following on from the atrocities in Paris. The first is: will the West ever recognise that not all religions are the same and that, in stark contradiction to the accepted narrative, the fruits of democracy and free speech in the West are the direct consequence of the deep action of Christian theology within our culture? The accepted narrative, after all, with its fetishisation of Galileo and Darwin, casts the Christian authorities as those who are hostile to free speech, to intellectual exploration, to the vulgar dynamism which is at one and the same time the most attractive and most alarming feature of our society. This accepted narrative is a travesty of the truth, but, much worse than that, it forms part of the intellectual blindness of our political and cultural elite which in itself prevents a full and effective engagement with the fascists who are attacking us. Unless our elite can recognise that we need to rest our values on a religious foundation then we will inevitably lose ground to those who can recognise that reality.

My second question is for those who wish to apologise for the Islamic faith. Does Islam have within itself the resources required to police the violent terrorists? Those resources are both doctrinal and practical. After all, the list of terrorist atrocities that have been carried out by Muslims over the last thirty years and more is extensive, and the YouTube beheadings carried out by ISIS are simply the latest example of a well-established trend. Those who carry out such barbaric acts are explicitly and avowedly doing so as Muslims, in the name of Muhammed, and they cry out ‘Allahu Akhbar’. It is not enough for other Muslims to say ‘that is not true Islam’. The links between the terrorists and long-established Islamic teaching are not trivial. The links between extremist behaviour and extremist preaching, such as the Wahhabi strand of Islamic thought financially backed and promulgated by the Saudi government, are not minor.

Yes, the situation has many complexities which I have not been able to engage with in this article, yet I do find myself wearying of those who take refuge in moral complexity and equivocation, when by so doing they give clear succour and encouragement to the enemy. We need to recover an awareness of our own religious roots, of the vitality and dynamism of the Christian faith – yes, even the Church of England! Without it, all that we most value in our society will pass away. The fundamental clash is clear. We either kowtow and appease those who wish to police what we are allowed to say, or else, with Jesus, we revel in our rumbunctious rudeness and tell the enemy where to go.

Atheism and the heart of darkness

The recent pictures of the beheading of James Foley are simply the latest exemplars of the brutality that drives the Islamic State. It would appear that the executioner spoke with a British accent which must surely make us ask ourselves – what is it about our contemporary British society which is so awful that it can generate those who wish to travel to a foreign land thousands of miles away in order to take part in systematic savagery?

Let’s move past the trope that it is religion that causes this. In the contemporary secular understanding of the world, it is, of course, purely down to religion that people can be horrible to each other, but such an approach is less and less credible as time goes on. Recent research published in the three volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars’ shows that of the 1,763 wars listed, covering all of human history, some 93% were waged for non-religious reasons. Of the remainder, more than half were driven by muslim expansion. So all the other religions combined have been responsible for less than 3% of all the wars that have ever been waged. The reflex response to the horror of James Foley’s end in our society is to blame religious ignorance – indeed, to insist that to be religious is to be ignorant – but to stay in that mindset is to abandon any hope of either genuine understanding or progress in resolving conflict.

After all, what we see on the small scale with James Foley’s murder is reproduced in societies around the world. This is the heart of darkness, about which Conrad wrote so compellingly, and which Coppola translated to effectively onto the screen. This is ‘the horror, the horror’, the element of human nature that exults in blood and death. There is a human propensity to violence, which surely has a genetic root. After all, if chimpanzee troops can engage in violent savagery against each other, why should human troops be so different – and so far as I am aware, there is no argument to say that chimpanzee violence is rooted in religious beliefs.

What seems more plausible is the notion that in the struggle for resources and reproductive fitness human biology has inherited all the instincts that lead chimpanzees to slaughter each other. When human beings are placed in a situation where there is an easy way to distinguish between one group and another, and when those groups are placed under severe pressure associated with access to scarce resources, then those human beings are highly likely to end up slaughtering each other and playing football with the decapitated heads of the enemy. Put more succcinctly, proximity + diversity + pressure = darkness.

This darkness is a potential of every human heart. Civilisation is that thin crust covering over the darkness and enabling all the higher expressions of humanity, all the things which liberal society values, such as the possibility of peaceful disagreement, respect for human rights and diversity and so on. My concern is that the taproots of civilisation, most particularly the taproots of our civilisation, have been progressively destroyed over the last few centuries, and that it is this which means that we produce young men who wish to go overseas.

After all, this darkness is a central part of the Christian world view – we call it sin, in extreme forms we call it depravity, and we say that this is an inescapable part of our nature. We all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God. If we say that we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We have stories that talk about how sin came into the world, and stories that talk about the immediate consequences of that sin – the original murder that followed the original sin. Much more important, we also have tools that enable us to engage with, overcome and redeem that sin – to turn our hearts of darkness into hearts of light. Such tools, principally our language of forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation – all that makes for peace and builds up our common life – these are what enable creative resolutions to human conflict. Without such tools, we are doomed to repeat the biological processes of our primate cousins, with the notable difference that we are apes armed with far more powerful weapons.

The question that I wish to ask the atheist is simply: is there anything in your worldview which enables the overcoming of the heart of darkness? Clearly the existence of the heart of darkness of itself need not trouble an atheist worldview, although it shatters the complacency embedded at the centre of liberal progressivism with which atheism is often associated. My question is about what can enable the heart of darkness to be changed: what are the resources which an atheist perspective brings to the table to enable our community to engage with and overcome the darkness which explicitly proclaims its desire to destroy our civilisation?

To change a human heart requires rather more engagement than a dispassionate understanding of the world can offer. We need to engage with our emotional health, and we need to discuss questions of pride and humiliation, both in ourselves and in other cultures. We need to have an honest conversation about the bleak brokenness of human nature, what the potential triggers for murder lust might be, and what we might be enabled, as a community and society, to do about them.

Although I greatly respect the insights that evolutionary biology can offer, they cannot get us very far on the journey we need to travel. I rather suspect that pondering the story about the political execution of an innocent man on a cross can tell us more about this than all the tomes of the evolutionists put together. It is because such tales have been relegated to the category of ‘fairy stories’ that we have become culturally bankrupt, lacking the capacity to engage creatively with the crises of our time. We will only be able to make progress when the dominant secular narrative accepts a more humble role, and we once again give stories the place of primary honour in the shaping and moulding of our civilisation.

The United States is channelling Daggett

This is from the screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises

INT. DAGGETT’S PENTHOUSE – DAY

Daggett bursts in, furious. Stryver tries to placate him.

DAGGETT
How the hell did Miranda Tate get the inside track on the Wayne board?! Was she meeting with Wayne? Was she sleeping with Wayne?

STRYVER
Not that we know of -

DAGGETT
Clearly you don’t ‘know of’ anything, do you?! Where’s Bane?!

STRYVER
We told him it was urgent -

DAGGETT
Then where is the masked -

BANE (O.S.)
Speak of the devil…
Daggett turns. Bane is already there.

BANE
…and he shall appear.

DAGGETT
What the hell’s going on?

BANE
The plan is proceeding as expected.

DAGGETT
You see me running Wayne Enterprises?! (Moves towards Bane.)
Your stock exchange hit didn’t work, friend. And now you’ve got my construction crews working all hours around the city? How’s that supposed to help my company absorb Wayne’s?

BANE (TO STRYVER)
Leave us.

DAGGETT
You stay right there! I’m in charge!
Bane places a gentle hand on Daggett’s shoulder.

BANE
Do you feel in charge?
Daggett is taken aback. Stryver leaves.

DAGGETT
I’ve paid you a small fortune -

BANE
And that gives you power over me?
Daggett considers the heavy hand on his shoulder. Nervous.

DAGGETT
What is this?

BANE
Your money and infrastructure have been important. Till now.

DAGGETT
What are you?

BANE
Gotham’s reckoning. Come to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on…
Bane gently takes the terrified Daggett’s head in his hands…

DAGGETT
You are true evil…

BANE
I am necessary evil.
Stryver, on the steps outside the living room, flinches.

I think that the United States (by which I mean: the small group of profoundly naive and ignorant in the State Department guiding US policy, not the US as a people – see this) has lost its way in the world, and has placed its trust in Mammon. Whether it is Russia or China or ISIS that plays the part of ‘Gotham’s reckoning’, that moment of truth is closer every day.

Stop poking the bear: A secure and prosperous Russia is in our national interest

The more I read about the situation in the Ukraine, the more despairing I become at the utterly banal and criminally negligent incompetence of our Western leadership. These are just a few bullet points, as I don’t have the time to turn it into a proper essay – maybe my next Courier article will remedy that.

1. Russia has vital strategic interests in the Ukraine (see my earlier thoughts), and it is rational for them to pursue them. We don’t.
2. That means that escalation will have to go much higher if we are expecting Putin to back down on this. (Actually, I think the only way Putin will back down is if the oligarchs around him are facing bankruptcy – and even then, only if their fear of bankruptcy is greater than their fear of being stabbed with an umbrella on a London bridge).
3. The principal driver of this crisis is the United States, seeking to expand the borders of Nato to the edge of Russia. They are seeking to humiliate Russia. This is not a strategy of statecraft but of small boys in a playground.
4. The EU is following the lead of the US – even though it is becoming much clearer than the interests of the EU radically diverge from those of the US. Will the US regret bugging Angela Merkel?
5. Have a read of this article from Dmitry Orlov, about MH17. Are people really going to be taken in by the whipping up of anti-Russian hysteria? That would make me so depressed.
6. We are nowhere near as strong as we think we are in this conflict, especially financially. Clearly the US and the EU are going to try to cripple Russia using financial means rather than military means. There are two major problems with this – first, the dollar’s status as a reserve currency is not permanently assured, and the major non-Western powers have already been putting alternative options into position. Second, I really believe that when push comes to shove, the West is more dependent upon Russian energy than Russia is dependent upon Western finance. After all, oil can be purchased in currency other than the dollar, even by barter – but the supply of oil is extremely tight.
7. If I was Putin I would respond to the financial sanctions by saying ‘we are going to lower our oil production by 1 million barrels per day’ – he could offer a fig-leaf and say ‘we are concerned about the loss of pressure in our major fields’ but that doesn’t matter. The price of oil would immediately spike, returning the West to recession at best. There is a great chance that Russia would get as much income from a lower output, given that higher price – and other nations would be quite happy to pay them for it. The West thinks that Russia will play by Western rules!
8. All this time, the real ideological and civilisational threat to the West continues to hack its bloody way through Syria and Iraq as Obama – who was always an oblivious empty suit – spends more time on the golf course. A happy Russia, fully engaged with the West, a stable energy supplier and ally against ISIS and so on – that is overwhelmingly our national interest. Instead we are being led by incompetent and naive fools into a conflict which will lead the West even further into the dust. God really wants us to change.

Update: title amended thanks to an email from Ian

Of prophecy and life in a horror movie

I enjoy horror films. This is a somewhat bizarre taste for a clergyman I suppose (a legacy of a very secular youth) but I find them cathartic. After all, classic horror is deeply conservative – there is a peaceful status quo; there is a violent interruption to the status quo; then the violent interruption is repudiated. My taste tends more to the supernatural thriller side of things (The Exorcist, The Conjuring) rather than the gory schlock (Friday 13th) but I can enjoy most of them – particularly if I find myself in need of an emotional purging. Sometimes I can get really tense and a good ‘Aaaagh’ is effective therapy.

One of the most striking horror films of the last twenty years was the film ‘Saw’, which I thought was very interesting, and had a remarkable central conceit (ignore all the sequels and derivative copies). The premise of the first film is that an evil genius has trapped people in a room, and forces them to make painful choices if they are to survive. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Well, the film ‘Saw’ gets its name from the object lying on the floor in the opening act…

Why am I discussing such things here? Well the interesting thing about that film isn’t the gore but the exploration of the nature of choice, specifically, of the way in which we prioritise certain things rather than others. It is a measure of our humanity that we are able to step away from our own immediate needs and see a larger picture. The film is an exploration of values and it operates very effectively as a critique of the collapse of conventional western values and their replacement by mindless and selfish consumerism. Each character is faced with a particular choice, rooted in their previous patterns of life, and the challenge for each of them is to ‘choose life’.

There is a strand of theology rooted in some passages of the Old Testament which relates quite strongly to this. Specifically, in Deuteronomy chapter 30 God gives the Ancient Hebrews a choice. Either they choose life, which means to worship YHWH and establish social justice, and they shall flourish; or, they choose death, which means worshipping foreign gods and tolerating injustice, and then they shall be destroyed.

This fundamental message is repeatedly forgotten in Old Testament times, and in order to bring the people back to the right path, God sends prophets to them on a regular basis, to repeat the ‘Word of God’ and call the people back to life. Prophecy is often misunderstood as being principally about a prediction of the future. Such predictions are a part of what the prophetic ministry means, but they are a byproduct of the primary task.

Jesus himself, as the quintessential prophet, sums up the prophetic message when he describes the two great commandments. The first is to love God with all that we’ve got, to put him first in our priorities; the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves, which means to establish social justice, to ensure that no member of our society is flung onto the garbage heap. Where such priorities are not in place, the consequences are terrible. When the prophet denounces such activity he usually follows the denunciation with a vivid description of what the consequences will be, using the language of God’s wrath.

These consequences are principally geo-political. The political leadership of a country that has turned away from the right priorities is – by definition – operating in an unreal situation. This means that their decisions become less and less guided by truth, and more and more guided by the illusions held by the ruling class. The most vivid example of this in Old Testament times came with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BC. The ruling class had felt themselves immune to the consequences of their actions; the prophet Jeremiah denounced their foolishness (and was thrown into a cistern for his troubles); the false prophet Hananiah told the rulers that everything was going to be fine – but reality broke in and scenes from a horror movie ensued, culminating with the slaughter of the royal family on the steps of the temple.

It is a useful rule of thumb when considering the nature of God to substitute in the word ‘reality’ – instead of saying ‘God won’t like that’, say instead ‘reality won’t like that’, in other words, ‘it won’t work, it will go wrong’. To be properly attuned to God in any situation is essentially to see the underlying truth clearly, to not allow any distortions of value to mislead our judgements, to step away from illusion. This is essentially what the prophet does – he simply speaks the truth into a situation. Sometimes this truth is heard by the leadership of a community – as with Jonah in Nineveh – and the people repent, and the foretold disaster is averted. Where the truth is not heard, however, then the consequences are terrifying.

We are, I believe, in a time when the consequences of our prior actions and decisions are coming back to haunt us. Western society does not have right priorities, and it is not concerned to seek social justice, and as a consequence we are running head long into the brick wall of reality. We have built an empire upon cheap energy and easy credit, and now both of those things are being taken away. We are going to have to start making choices about what we really want – what are we prepared to let go of, what are our deepest values? Where those values are aligned with God and social justice, then we still have a potentially prosperous future ahead of us, even if it means we have to saw off things that we are remarkably attached to. If, however, we refuse to make such choices, then a bloody fate lies in wait.

The theological basis of my politics

I thought this could be useful as a single place to outline some fundamentals, that I can then refer back to as needed. I’m not going to put any evidence in this, it is intended as a conceptual outline, not an argument.

1. The human being is made in the image of God. To deface the human being is therefore a blasphemy.

2. I view the Western development of human rights legislation as a secular working out of this Christian perspective. Christianity is, so far as I know, the only religious perspective to have abolished slavery, and it did this not once but twice.

3. A particular aspect of this is concern for the minority, those who are especially vulnerable. Biblically these are the widows, the orphans and the aliens. Concern for the vulnerable is more commonly known as ‘social justice’. I do not believe that it is possible to have a living Christian faith and not be concerned about social justice. There are, however, many ways in which that concern for social justice can be worked out.

4. This seed of the gospel is inherently radical and progressive, dismantling structures of exclusion and oppression. I like Girard’s teaching that it is due to the profound workings of the gospel text that things have got better – it is not that we no longer burn witches because we are scientific, rather, we are scientific because we no longer burn witches – and we no longer burn witches because we are more informed by the gospel.

5. Protecting the vulnerable, preventing the dehumanisation of our neighbour – this is a political programme. In order for that programme to be achieved there needs to be a support structure in place. This support structure can be expressed in legal form, but most substantively it needs to be expressed through the embodied forms of the culture. The Eucharist is a more progressive rite than the shared watching of X Factor. The Christian therefore must pay close attention to the cultural forms within which we live, and seek to preserve those which support a Christian approach, whilst struggling against those which would undermine such an approach.

6. In our present context, the forces which I see as most inimical to the Christian vision fall into the category of ‘industrial modernism’. This I see as having two aspects. The first is the ideology of making the world safe for multinational profits. All of the local and distinctive elements of human life, whether those be amongst the native tribes of the Amazon or the working mens clubs of a Durham mining town, prevent the smoothly functioning efficiency of a market state – that is, a state which sees its own primary purpose as enabling the multinational company to make more money. I believe that God rejoices in the manifold diversity of humanity and anything which reduces the human being to a unit of economic productivity is of Babylon. Profoundly and paradoxically linked in to this is the intellectual aridity of the various fundamentalisms which afflict religions, and within ‘religion’ I would include the dominant contemporary form, which is left-wing multiculturalism. If we are to preserve the human in the cultural context, then we must insist upon the value of the dissident opinion, and therefore ensure that the rights to free speech and free association are not inhibited. We either stand with the Rushdies and Ayaan Hirsi Alis of this world or we let go of any attempt to preserve our Christian patterns of life at all.

7. I see the most important political conversation happening within the UK at the moment as the question about whether to remain part of the EU or not. Given what I have said above, it will, I hope, be clear why I object to the EU. I see it as an overmighty principality in the Stringfellow sense, as something which is necessarily and relentlessly dehumanising. We need to be free of it. Given the impoverished state of our political system, I see only one option for effecting the change which I believe to be so necessary.

Anyone interested in more on this – especially the first few points – is directed to my book, which gives a much more substantial explanation of my views.

Let’s stay the hell out

Courier article, written in haste :(

So, here is a little nugget of information to start us off: “Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private gas producer, has expanded its Board of Directors by bringing on Mr. R Hunter Biden as a new director.” There are two things to note about this nugget. The first is that Mr Biden is son of the slightly more famous Vice President of the United States. The second is that this is about gas in the Ukraine.

Those of you who have been reading my columns regularly will be aware of my concern about energy supplies. With regard to oil I view the ‘Peak Oil’ case as having been thoroughly vindicated by events. The supply of ‘normal’ oil has not significantly increased since 2005, and this is the primary reason why the oil price is now sustained at over $100 a barrel, rather than the $20 per barrel that was standard when conventional opinion believed that Peak Oil was nonsense. With gas – which is the hidden factor behind all the political posturing in the Ukraine dispute – the peak will come some 20-25 years after the oil peak, and that means that there is still a great deal of money to be made, and power to be harnessed, through exercising control of gas fields.

Consider this map, and then consider what Mr Putin’s overall strategy might be in this dispute.

ukraine gas fields
Ooh look – two large gas basins in Eastern Ukraine. I wonder how attractive to Mr Putin those might be. Senator John McCain recently described Russia as a ‘gas station with a nation-state attached’. He neglected to add the significant additional fact that this particular nation state possesses a vast number of nuclear weapons and is effectively immune to coercion.

Now over the last few years the United States has been seeking to exercise a great deal of influence within the Ukraine, and a plausible case can be made that the CIA had a hand in the overthrow of President Yanukovych, who was getting a little too close to Mr Putin for Washington’s comfort. We are, in other words, simply looking at a proxy fight for influence over the Ukraine and, therefore, over the gas supplies that are under Ukrainian territory. The fact that the son of the US Vice President is now in a key post dealing with such issues is, of course, a simple coincidence.

The question that I want to ask is: does Britain have a dog in this fight? I’m wary of saying that the Ukraine is a far away country of which we know nothing because in this modern age neither of those claims are true. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only person who is getting fed up with our government seeking to ‘exercise influence’ in world affairs when such influence only ever seems to be exercised in order to advance American interests rather than British ones.

What, after all, should a British foreign policy look like? What are the ‘British interests’ which such a foreign policy should serve? As a rough guess, something like: preserving the British people from direct foreign aggression or terrorism; ensuring a safe, stable and legal international system, so combatting piracy and so on; and finally, seeking to foster British values like fairness and tolerance wherever that might be possible, which may, in truth, be quite a rare occurrence.

If we apply that to the situation in the Ukraine, the first and most important element is clearly not applicable. There is no direct risk to British people whatever happens in the Ukraine. The second element is, in truth, rather embarrassing for the West, especially the United States, for Putin is simply following a script established by the West over the last two decades and, frankly, he is far more ruthlessly efficient at it than the empty suit presently occupying the White House. Russia has much more at stake, and it really does have a dog in this fight. Russian strategic interests are directly engaged, and the failure to take account of this is the most frighteningly culpable element of Western incompetence on the whole issue. In so far as there is a British interest it lies in there being a negotiated and peaceful outcome, which restores some legitimacy to international law and custom. My fear is that Western policy in this area is being driven by an overestimation of Western capacity and a corresponding underestimation of Russian capacity, interest and will. In other words, I believe that Putin knows that the West is not going to be able to do very much about his intentions in the Ukraine, and he is quite willing to push the situation forward until Western incompetence and impotence is fully on display for the world to see. Such an outcome would have very significant and unwelcome consequences for decades to come.

So am I arguing for some form of isolationist foreign policy? I’m certainly wary of ‘foreign entanglements’ but given our heritage and national character I can’t see isolationism as being true to who we are. I just wish that we could pay a little more attention to where we do have significant interests of our own. By way of comparison, consider the Falklands. Here we have British people who are being directly threatened by a foreign power that has attacked them militarily within living memory. This seems to me to fall clearly within the first priorities for our foreign policy; that is, we should ensure that our commitments to the Falklanders are fully resourced before we ever think about engaging with other military roles – and that includes Afghanistan and Iraq. (I’m not saying we haven’t done this – Mount Pleasant air base makes quite a difference! I am simply using the Falklands as an example of where British interests are directly at stake.)

In the Ukraine the East of the country is filled with Russian speakers who are supportive of Putin’s actions. It is much more closely analagous to the Falklands situation, where there are strong ties of culture and history, than to a form of foreign adventurism like invasions of Afghanistan. Any prudent foreign policy needs to make a stark and clear-headed assessment of the different levels of interest that nations have in any particular area. I don’t know what the right ‘solution’ to the crisis in the Ukraine will be, I only know that we need to stay the hell out of it, if we are to look after our own British interests at all.