Some brief thoughts about that ‘mosque’

It is proposed to build an Islamic centre, including a mosque, at a site in close proximity to ‘Ground Zero’ in New York.

– All sides agree that this is perfectly legal; that’s not really the issue.
– The issue is whether it is morally right or sensible for this to take place.
– Much fuss about ‘causing offence’ – I tend to think that being offended is a sin and this isn’t a solid ground for anything righteous.
– IF (and it’s a big IF) there is a desire for triumphalism behind the establishment of this centre then it should be opposed, not on grounds of it being offensive, but on the grounds that the war against the khawarij continues, and it makes no sense to gift a propaganda victory to the enemy.
– If, however, the development of the centre is straightforward and above board then I see no reason to oppose it.

My two pennies, for what they’re worth.
BTW I enjoy political cartoons – here’s some that I thought were ‘on point’:

The sin of being offended

Is it ever right for a Christian to be offended? I believe not – and I’d like to explain why.

I believe that the degree of our ‘offense taking’ is the degree to which we remain to be converted to the gospel.

A key word in the Gospels is skandalon, a word that is translated differently in different places, sometimes straightforwardly as scandal, sometimes as offence, sometimes as ‘stumbling-block’. Here are some examples:

Mt 11.6 – “blessed is the one who takes no offence at me” – ie is not scandalised by Jesus
1 Corinthians 1.23 – the stumbling block – crucial Christian concept (compare Ps 118.22 (quoted in Mk 12.10/Lk 20) Isaiah 8.12-15, 1 Peter 2 4-10)
Mt 5.29 – if your right eye causes you to sin, literally ‘if your eye causes you to be scandalised’ pluck it out
Mt 9.42 – whoever causes one of these little ones to be scandalised….
Jn 16.1 – “these things I have told you so that you will not be scandalised” (go astray)
Jn 6.53-61 – teaching about communion – “Does this offend you?” – communion shares in the scandal of the cross

The problem with skandalon – the taking of offence – is that it is an expression of worldly values. Scandal is contagious and reproduces itself across a society, forming a major way in which a society polices its own customs. It is ‘the way of the world’, and remember: the Satan, the ‘lord of this world’ is that force which seeks to reproduce scandal, the taking of offence – for it is in the shared nature of the offence taking that social solidarity is affirmed and reinforced.

Christianity, however, begins with the scandal of the cross. That is, in the story of Jesus we have the unmasking of this process – a scapegoat who isn’t simply a victim, but one who understands this process and who forgives those who take part in it. In other words, a victim who does not take offence. This “non-taking of offence” is central to Jesus’ entire ministry – indeed, he is regularly criticised for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and memorably criticises the religious authorities saying that the prostitutes will get to heaven before them! Through not taking offence, through not seeing religious pieties as things to be defended, Jesus changes the social dynamics and enables a non-violent reconciliation with the excluded to take place. That is the essence of the Kingdom – an unmasking of this process of scandal, scapegoating and violence, in order that a new common life, not built upon these elements, can come into being.

We are called to follow Christ’s example. Thus, for a Christian, it is a sin to be offended. To take offence is to play the devil’s games, to enter into antagonism between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saved’. In letting go of any sense of offence, one is released from the mythological pressures embedded in all stories of ‘them and us’, and is set free to become the sort of person that God originally intended – living in peace and loving the neighbour.

This I find profoundly helpful, in terms of guiding my engagement and interest in the world. We are not to seek to preserve some sort of moral purity – that runs counter to Jesus’ own well documented practice. Nor are we to protest at being offended. After all, if God does not take offence at the murder of his Son, how can we take offence at anything milder?

Football predictions

It’s a mugs game, but after last year’s reasonable success, I’ll stick my neck out again – although I’d emphasise that I’m much less confident of the predictions this year! Numbers in brackets are to notes at the end.

1. Chelsea (1)
2. ManU (2)
3. Man City (3)
4. Arsenal (4)
5. Liverpool (5)
6. Spurs
7. Everton
8. Villa (6)
9. Birmingham
10. Sunderland
11. Stoke
12. Fulham
13. Blackburn (7)
14. WHam
15. Wolves
16. Newcastle
17. Bolton
18. WBA (8)
19. Wigan
20. Blackpool (9)

(1) For the simple reason that I think Chelsea are significantly stronger than last year, injuries to Essien permitting.
(2) At some point the wheels on ManU will come off, but I’ve been tempted to write them off on many occasions before, and SAF keeps on doing the business. He’ll do it again this year. I think SAF is, quite possibly, the greatest football manager ever.
(3) They’ll take time to settle, but I think this year they will become a bit of a flat-track bully who will come unstuck against the top two. Next year may be different…
(4) If Arsenal sign a decent goalkeeper they will do better.
(5) Roy will get them organised, and I think he will get the best out of Joe Cole (what a muppet!)
(6) Don’t see much between these next three, notwithstanding MO’N leaving, but if Spurs get a better striker on board then they will make a better go at staying in the top four.
(7) Similarly, not much between these next five, too good to go down, not good enough to go up (and I don’t think Mark Hughes – who I think is good – will be able to better Roy’s achievements at Fulham. It’ll all be good experience for him though.)
(8) Relegation contenders – I’d far rather Bolton go down than WBA but sadly they’re more likely to be higher up.
(9) The bottom two. I expect Martinez to be sacked before Christmas, and I don’t expect that to help.

Collapse, part 2

Courier article, also based on my Tainter review

In my last column I briefly reviewed a book by Joseph Tainter on the collapse of civilisations. His principal argument is that societies collapse into lower levels of complexity as a direct result of decreasing marginal returns on investment. In other words, there comes a point when investing more resources into maintaining the status quo actually makes the situation worse, not better. How far Tainter is correct in this thesis is something that professionals in his field can take forward. My interest is with the implications for our present crisis, for it seems unarguable that our existing society has entered the realm of diminishing returns on investment (seen most clearly through peak oil – the Deepwater Horizon disaster can stand as the symbol for that).

Here are some thoughts about the implications of Tainter’s argument, including why I come away from studying it with a sense of optimism.

To begin with, there is a trade off between efficiency and resilience; that is, the most efficient forms of complexity are the most susceptible to a sudden collapse. In contrast, those that are less efficient have deeper levels of resilience. This can actually be seen with regard to the collapse of the USSR in the 1990’s, the most recent example of a civilisational collapse. As the Soviet state was incredibly inefficient, most citizens had actually developed ways of coping without the central state, especially with regard to growing their own food. This meant that they were well placed to cope with the withdrawal of central state services when the collapse came.

Secondly, armed with Tainter’s insights, the theme of diminishing returns on complexity appears to explain much of contemporary politics. In the UK for example we have over the last ten years or so seen a significant increase in the resources made available from the centre for various purposes, eg health care. Sadly, much of that new investment has gone towards increasing the level of central control, and has failed in every respect. The new coalition government’s emphasis upon the ‘Big Society’ is, I would say, simply a recognition that the central government can no longer afford to exercise such direct control.

Thirdly, a large part of the ‘green’ critique of our contemporary society chimes strongly with Tainter’s emphases. Underlying the idea that constant growth of the economy is a dangerous delusion is an entire vision called ‘permaculture’, or, sustainability. In other words, the idea is that a particular arrangement of human habits and lifestyles can be maintained over the long term, in a harmonious balance with the natural environment which supports such lifestyles. Lifestyles which take too much out of the environment are unsustainable – in other words, they will come to an end, they will collapse. What Tainter provides is a way of analysing our present activities that helps to indicate whether they are sustainable in the long run, or not.

Tainter writes that “Collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole.” It seems unarguable to me that our present form of industrial civilisation will collapse; what is not clear to me is whether it makes sense to equate ‘industrial civilisation’ with ‘technically advanced and humane civilisation’. In particular there seems no reason why it should not be possible to shift to a ‘steady-state’ type of economy, which is precisely what the green movement is advocating.

The crucial point is that I do not see our existing levels of complexity as inherently desirable, rather the opposite. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed it came about after a long period of the centre increasing taxation on the periphery – the Roman elite taxing the farmers in order to sustain their own lifestyles. As might be predicted, this simply resulted in a decrease in agricultural production and the seeds of rebellion. Just as the late-Roman farmers found it in their interest to let the central structures collapse, so too might the majority of the industrialised nations find it in their interest to let the gigantic state structures, built up through the twentieth century, collapse in turn. (What future the EU?)

So why have I come away from Tainter with an optimistic outlook? The answer is that Tainter makes plain that the collapse of complexity is not necessarily a universal bane. On the contrary, whilst those most closely invested in the centralised structures do badly in a collapse, it is quite possible that the majority of a community will benefit, not least because for a long time leading up to a collapse the maintenance of the status quo had exacted an increasing burden upon ordinary citizens, through the increase of taxes and the restrictions on human freedom. The removal of a particular level of human complexity does not, of itself, lead to depopulation. It seems quite possible that the twenty-first century future will be local, resilient and humane, and without an over-bearing state recklessly absorbing and wasting scarce resources that prospect seems very attractive. Of course, getting to that point will likely be very scary…

In my next column, I’ll be narrowing down the focus even more to talk about what these things might mean for Mersea.

Some books relating to the war against the khawarij

I first started to become interested in Islam whilst at theological college, when I did a term’s course on it. That was then seasoned and enhanced whilst working in the East End, in a Muslim-majority area, particularly from taking sixth-form general studies lessons for the local youth. These are books that I have either read (linked through to a review where applicable) or that are on my bookshelf awaiting the right moment to be read. If I could only recommend one title for this area it would be the Habeck book, from whence comes my title. My longest discussion of these issues can be found here.

The Koran, Penguin Classics (not an easy read)
I also have a translation and commentary on the Koran by A. Yusuf Ali brought back to me from Saudi Arabia by a friend.

Muhammad, by Maxine Rodinson Standard, ‘vintage’ biography of Muhammad.
The Truth about Muhammad, Robert Spencer – up to date and very critical biography.

Islam, a short history, Karen Armstrong Basic, standard work.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), Robert Spencer. Robert Spencer giving his take (hostile).
Islam and the West, Norman Daniel Haven’t read this one yet, but it seems mainstream.
The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, Bat Ye’or – another one still to be read, but highly regarded.
The legacy of Jihad, ed. Andrew Bostom – another still to be read, academic, thorough.

Some philosophical ones:
Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern, John Gray – short, readable and very stimulating contrarian view.
The West and the Rest, Roger Scruton – argues that the West is distinctive and worth defending.
The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis – one of the foremost commentators of Islam from a Western perspective. I need to read more of Lewis’ work.
The Rage and the Pride, and, The Force of Reason, Oriana Fallaci. Fallaci is a bit bonkers, but she makes many telling points and deserves to be read more widely. I haven’t read the second one yet.

On Jihad and our present war
Knowing the Enemy, Mary Habeck – I have just finished this one, and I would highly recommend it as the first one to read on this area. Measured and clear-eyed.
Celsius 7/7, Michael Gove – quite good for a politician.
Londonistan, Melanie Phillips – haven’t read beyond chapter one yet, but I can guess what to expect!
Militant Islam reaches America, Daniel Pipes – one of the best books I’ve read; Pipes’ blog is worth following.
While Europe Slept, Bruce Bawer – stimulating and outlines what is at stake.

Some terms that I think are worth understanding:
The House of War (dar al-Harb) and the House of Peace (dar al-Islam)
and of course
Jihad, but see here

I’ll try and keep this post up to date.