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 rules of hospitality

There is a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin that runs: “Houseguests are like fish – they start to smell after three days”. Hospitality is a tremendously important concept and practice, and it is one, I believe, that is much richer and more workable than ‘tolerance’. After all, what does it mean to ‘tolerate’ something, especially in the home? There are always bounds to what is considered to be acceptable behaviour, on the part of both host and guest. Indeed, there is much delightful and occasionally pointless ritual that surrounds the nature of giving and receiving hospitality. I greatly admire those of my friends who are swift to send small cards of acknowledgement after having stayed with me – I’m getting better at that, but would still only mark myself as slightly better than terrible.

This process of offering hospitality has tremendous cultural weight. I recently watched the celebrated author Neil Gaiman give a reading of one of his stories at the Barbican, called ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’. This is a dark and forbidding story set in Scotland before the time of the highland clearances, and a key plot moment hinges on a claim to hospitality. In an environment which is inhospitable – as the highlands in winter very much are – to be able to claim hospitality from a stranger in their shelter meant the difference between life and death. For those of you who have been watching Game of Thrones, I need simply say ‘Red Wedding’.

The same seriousness was given to hospitality in the Ancient Near East, as is witnessed to many times in Scripture. The most notorious rejection of the cultural norms around hospitality was the infamous city of Sodom. Their perversions had very little to do with sexuality. That our culture thinks that their sin was sexual simply reveals our own distortions. If the sin was sexual, why does Lot – the man portrayed as honourable – offer his own daughters to be raped by the mob (Genesis 19.8)? No, the sin being portrayed in the story of Sodom centres on the need to show hospitality, and the rules and rituals associated with it, which are hugely more important than sexuality. If only the Church of England gave as much attention to the issues around hospitality as to sexuality we might be less tied up in knots.

Jesus himself sees the sin of Sodom through the lens of hospitality. When he is telling his disciples to go out and proclaim the Kingdom he says that those who do not welcome them – who do not give them hospitality – will suffer even more for that rejection than Sodom and Gomorrah. As so often, sexuality is not on the horizon of his thinking. More than this, the famous Biblical teaching “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” is likely a reference to the experience of Lot in Sodom.

Hospitality, then, is an immensely important concept. Where I believe the concept differs most crucially from that of tolerance is to do with the boundaries of what is acceptable. There is, in Scripture, no sense that the offering of hospitality leads to any burden upon the host to change their patterns of life, especially their patterns of worshipping life, in favour of that of the guest. There is, rather, an immense emphasis on the profound wrongness of doing so. There are many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, but one of the clearest is to do with Solomon, who is shown as losing his way because he is led astray by his wives, who worship different Gods. As a result of this sin the Kingdom of Israel is split into two, and never again regains the authority that it held under David and Solomon.

Biblically, then, there is no room for what is presently called ‘multiculturalism’. There is a clear emphasis upon the rights and obligations associated with hospitality, which were seen as immensely significant, literally matters of life and death. Yet an equal weight is given to the insistence on keeping the patterns of home-life and worship stable and faithful.

Why do I discuss these things? It strikes me that our disputes about immigration would benefit from this understanding of hospitality. Where there is a clear risk to life – say, as with the Jewish population of Germany in the 1930s – there is an equivalently clear obligation on a Christian community to offer hospitality, to provide the means of life to those who are in a vulnerable position. There are many contexts today where the offer of hospitality might mean the difference between life and death.

However, it seems equally clear that there is something reckless and self-destructive about changing our own inherited patterns of life, including all the rights and rituals around hospitality, in order that other cultures might be established. There is a difference between a host culture which gradually changes in order to absorb and assimilate the gifts which different cultures can bring, and a host culture which is itself radically undermined by a revolutionary change brought about by mass immigration.

I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, to say the least, and I am sure there will be many reflex responses along the lines of ‘fascist!’ ‘bigot!’ ‘racist!’ and so on – the usual litany used to close down the conversation. I want to argue that we simply need a much better discussion around these issues, one which will command a widespread cultural assent from all who live in these islands, one which preserves our capacity to give a hospitable welcome to those in need whilst also preserving our own domestic patterns of life. We need to form a new consensus about what patterns of life can fit within a right sense of hospitality, and what patterns cannot do so.

After all, we too have a right to continue as a distinct culture and community, just as much as any undiscovered tribe in Papua New Guinea or any other exotic locale. It is not a mark of wickedness to try to defend our own way of life, our own inherited norms of freedom and community. It is not in and of itself wrong for a discussion about such matters simply to end at the point of saying ‘well, this is how we do things here, this is who we are’.

The world doesn’t owe us a living

A few thoughts sparked by this article, amongst other things.

The world is a hard place. If we don’t function properly within it then we will get chewed up and spat out.

To earn a living requires making a contribution that is valued.

There are two sorts of valuing. One is the sense of monetary worth. One is the sense of quality, spiritual worth.

The world dictates what is considered to be of monetary worth. If we wish to earn a living then we have to offer something that the world considers to be of value, ie of monetary worth. That is simply the way that the world is.

The world also drives a hard bargain. If it can get what you can offer for free then it will take it, thank you very much. I think that there is some truth in saying: the world will value you in the way that you value yourself.

The world could be larger than the number of people who have read Harry Potter. It may simply be 1,000 true fans. In fact, it need only be as large as a single other person – but then that one other person needs to be able to offer something that the world values.

It is perfectly possible to offer something of immense spiritual quality to the world and find that the world does not value it, does not offer any monetary reward. If that means that the desire to create vanishes, it is likely that the original desire was poorly founded, and not in touch with the real Spirit of creativity.

The contribution can be any of a myriad number of things, can be all kinds of wonderful, but the valuing is not under our control. If we wish to offer up ourselves to the world then there are two verdicts to keep sight of. The verdict of whether the world is willing to pay for our creativity, and the verdict of whether our creations have any eternal merit. We should not expect those valuations to coincide.

A simple law of economics is supply and demand. If what you offer is the same as what many other people offer, the price will be cheap, the work will not be valued. As we are each of us unique, it is possible that pursuing our individual vocations – which lead to a proper valuing and quality – may have the happy consequence that we can offer something to the world that nobody else can offer.

That is not guaranteed.

I lost money on publishing my book. It was one of the best things I have ever done, from which I gain immense satisfaction. I feel happy whenever I think of it. Yes, I am aware of my privileges.

Nothing would make me happier than to be able to earn a decent living from writing and teaching the faith. It is almost certainly a pipe-dream. That doesn’t matter. I write because I cannot do otherwise. To cease to write would be a self-undoing (and my lack of writing is a good index of the levels of stress in my personal life).

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, then all these things shall be added unto you, Allelu – Alleluia.