The last permissible prejudice

Courier article

Regular readers of this column will know that I’m not a fan of political correctness, by which I mean the way in which traditional language has been replaced by supposedly less-offensive euphemisms. So – ‘handicapped’ has become ‘disabled’ which in turn has become ‘differently abled’ (I use this example because I am a handicapped man; I have a stake in that particular debate). I have two principal reasons for my distaste, one is a classic ‘enlightenment’ argument, the other is specifically Christian.

The classic objection to political correctness is that it is a constraint upon freedom of speech. Words matter, they are tremendously powerful, and when particular forms of speech are ruled impermissible it means that the natural distribution of power within a society is constrained. Those who have power, especially those who can enforce that power, can gather yet more power to themselves. To make freedom of speech into a basic value within a society – and that includes things like freedom of assembly, freedom to disseminate and publish ideas and so on – is to leave room for the small children to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. It is to ensure that there are elements of power that remain outside the control of central authorities. This is the case no matter how worthy the cause that is being advanced to justify the restrictions upon speech.

The more Christian objection to political correctness is simply to point out that it is a sin to be offended – and it is the taking of offence which is the principal fuel that drives the desire for politically correct speech, principally by cultivating a fear in those who would like to speak that they might unwittingly cause offence. To be offended is to assert a position of privilege, to occupy a position of pride, to say ‘my status demands more respect than you are offering to me’. Whereas Christians are taught to take the lowliest position, and those who are first shall be last. There is a wonderful passage in St Paul’s letters where he describes all the ways in which he might claim a justifiable pride as a son of Abraham and a zealous Pharisee but that he now considers them all as dross. To allow oneself to be offended is to step away from the healthy spiritual heart of Christian life.

What we have with political correctness is a campaign to police cultural boundaries, to mark out what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. This is a campaign with particular ideological heft, rooted in the idea that inequality has to be abolished: not, it must be emphasised, inequality of opportunity so much as inequality of outcome. All must have prizes! The sense that there are innate differences between people – that these differences may be immune to our political blandishments and that, even more important, those differences may be creative and forces for profound good in the world – this is the ultimate heresy for the politically correct. All must be smoothly functioning cogs within the imperial bureaucratic and industrial machines. Difference is inefficiency!

This is an example of magical thinking. I do not wish to denigrate magical thinking, which is the practice of changing consciousness in accordance with will, and tremendously powerful (it’s what the advertising industry does, for example). What I object to is that political correctness is an extremely bad example of magical thinking, in that it takes no account of physical realities. To pretend that there are no differences is not to engage with reality; it is, in fact, a flight from that reality into a utopian vision of perfect conformity. All of my instincts are to take one look at the smoothly whirling wheels and want to shove a stick into it. Difference is human.

Which brings me to the fundamental point that I wish to make this week, which is that whenever there is a dominant political consciousness, that rules some forms of speech legitimate, and others illegitimate, it is very instructive to look for the blind spot and to ask, as Rowan Williams was prone to on a frequent basis, “Who pays the price?” In other words, which group of people do not enjoy protection from a politically correct environment? There are always prejudices, so where do the prejudices lie today?

I would argue that the last permissible prejudice in contemporary polite society is a prejudice against the working class British man. Those who fall into that category are denied any form of cultural acceptance. They are scorned as ignorant, racist, bigoted, redundant (in both senses), patriarchal, chauvinist, fat, lazy – generally as a waste of space that it would be best not to pay much attention to. Their cultural expressions are ridiculed, their political views vilified. There are two areas in particular that show this prejudice most clearly to me.

The first is in family law. Historically the typical man was able to perform the classic roles of protector and provider for their family, and in return they had certain legal assurances about the safety and integrity of that family – that it could not, for example, be destroyed upon a whim, that the legal contract of matrimony would be protected and enforced by the court system. That has entirely broken down and so one of the greatest social goods that a typical man was able to nurture and enjoy is now removed. This has been made possible for the simple reason that the state has taken over the roles of protector and provider; a real man of flesh and blood is no longer necessary.

The second is that the typical working class British man is at the very sharp end of the immigration debate. It is not those who are well established in their professions who are most at risk from the surge in immigration, rather it is those whose most marketable asset is their low wage cost who find their livelihoods being taken away by those who can provide labour at an even lower price. This is a development that is perfectly fine and justifiable for those who own industries, or those who wish to take advantage of much cheaper labour in the domestic sphere, but it has completely hammered the average man.

So is this a moan? No – that would simply be to ‘take offence’ in turn. It has been said that ‘to those who have will more be given, from those who have little, even that little shall be taken away’. Life is hard, ‘life is suffering’ as the Buddhists teach. What I would say is simply this: political correctness is a luxury, a product of an absurdly affluent society that has lost sight of the fundamental economic and practical truths of human life, the nature of genuine human differences that can be celebrated profitably rather than denied to everyone’s detriment. There are truths which will not go away, and which promise a much more fruitful future for the working class British man than our present delusional patterns of life can offer. We are rapidly entering into a time when the classic old-fashioned virtues of the working class man will once more be seen as valuable and honourable. Political correctness is simply a bubble on the crest of a wave that is now crashing against a very rocky shore. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Coming and Going in the Wilderness (Queer Theology Synchroblog)

Sam says: this is a guest post, part of the ‘Queer Theology Synchroblog’ – this year’s theme is “Coming/Going”. To find out more, go here.

The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman writes: there are a lot of biblical stories about people entering the wilderness alone, or in big groups, where they have to figure out who they are. This is one of the most pivotal stories in Christianity, and it involves two people who go into the wilderness separately, meet up there unexpectedly, and come out with a different and stronger sense of themselves than they had before they entered.

This is a sermon that I preached a couple of years ago, when I was struggling in my own deep and painful wilderness. Unbeknownst to me, I was at the time having an encounter with the people to whom I was preaching that was very like the experience in this story. I don’t know whether I was Philip, or the Eunuch. All I know is that I entered this place scared, and left it more fully aware of myself than I ever had been. That is what my faith tradition can do for people, at its best. And I also know that my queerness provided the lens for me both to understand what is going on in both of these encounters – Philip’s and the Eunuch’s, and mine and this church.

Acts 8.26-40

This story from Acts, about an encounter in a chariot on a wilderness road, is one of my favorites. It tells the story of the first Gentile – that is, the first non-Jew – who consciously chooses to follow the risen Christ. This is a pivotal moment in the life of the church, because it is the moment when the apostles realize that the new life offered by Jesus is offered not just to Jews, but to the whole world. This marks the beginning of something new and hugely important, not just in Christianity, but in human experience: the moment when religious identity becomes self-determining, not tied to bloodlines, to ethnicity, to national allegiance. It is the moment when Christianity becomes consciously, deliberately transgressive: violating conventional boundaries of human society in the search for meaning, for connection, for God.

It’s an extraordinary story, and it focuses with laser-like intensity on an interaction that takes place between two men: Philip, one of Jesus’ apostles; and an African man, a top advisor to the Queen of Ethiopia. We never learn this man’s name. In the bible this always a sign that we should pay very close attention to what we do know about him. What we know is a lot: He is one of the Queen’s most trusted advisors: he is in charge of her entire treasury. He is living in the lap of luxury. He’s sitting in a chariot that’s like a limo, with room for two or more. We know that he can read. We know that he is heading home from Jerusalem, where he has been worshipping. He is religiously observant. He is also spiritually inquisitive. Probably while he was in Jerusalem he picked up a scroll with the writings of Isaiah, and he is reading it aloud, trying to make sense of it. He is open-minded; he is looking for something new.

The text tells us something else about him: he is a eunuch. His sexual status is how he is identified throughout the narrative. “The eunuch did this; then the eunuch said that…” I told a good friend that I was preaching on this story, and her comment was: “kind of sucks to go down in history as ‘the eunuch.’ ‘People, I’m Fred. FRED. Is that so hard to write down?! Do you have to keep referring to me as the guy that got castrated?’”

We don’t know a lot about what being a eunuch in the court of Ethiopia might have signified. It may have meant that he was castrated at an early age to be cultivated as a particular kind of servant to the Queen. The fact that the text uses the term “eunuch” in lieu of his name suggests that ancient audiences would have known exactly what it meant. But take note: the author of Acts thinks that for the purposes this story his status as eunuch is more important than anything else about him, including his access to wealth, his political power, his nationality, his ethnic heritage, or his religious affiliation.

In this pivotal, transgressive moment, when Christianity is shattering barriers of tribe and language and people and nation, the focus is on a man who embodies both strength and vulnerability. He would have been recognized by the people of his day as someone who had been intentionally, sexually, set apart from the mainstream and lifted up into a position of privilege. He is someone, in other words, whose very life is the essence of liminality. He exists on the borders of human experience. That makes him kind of like a priest, actually. And in this story, the Holy Spirit plunges toward that border to accomplish something that has never been done before.

The story begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to “’Get up and go towards the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” The text tells us that this is a wilderness road. The wilderness is a place of chaos, and vulnerability, and discernment. It is the place where God sends the wandering children of Israel after the Exodus, and where God sends Jesus right after his baptism, both for the same reason: the wilderness is where people come to understand who they are, and what they are supposed to be. God sends Philip there for the same reason: to learn what this brand new spiritual movement is, to learn about its identity and the mission that God intends for it.

Philip gladly, voluntarily enters this place of radical unknowing, trusting that the Holy Spirit will stay with him and guide him. As we arrive with Philip on this wilderness road, our gaze is immediately directed to this man, this eunuch, in all his pomp and power, sitting and reading in his chariot. The Spirit tells Philip to join him. Philip runs up to the chariot. At this point, the story emphasizes the disparity in their circumstances. The eunuch is riding in comfort and splendor, probably dressed in regal finery. Philip is on foot, running, perhaps vaguely aware of the worn out strap on his sandal that he can’t afford to replace, hoping it won’t pick this moment to snap. The eunuch is reading Isaiah, and Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch is frustrated. He doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t know who to ask.

This is a rich moment of opportunity. The Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and we know that Luke was writing to a Gentile audience that wasn’t familiar with Hebrew scripture. The people Luke is trying to reach are just like the eunuch, eager to understand the Jewish traditions that have given birth to this new Christian movement. Luke encourages his Gentile listeners to identify with the eunuch, and to do just what the eunuch does: invite Philip in to explain what all this means.

And the eunuch does invite him in. It is a mutual invitation. The eunuch, a man of privilege and power, invites this peasant to sit beside him in his royal chariot. And Philip, a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people, set on fire by the Holy Spirit, invites this religious alien, this Ethiopian, this sexual deviant to become part of the world-altering mission he is on.

Together, they read from Isaiah. Words that Philip has heard his entire life suddenly are filled with new meaning for him. Using Isaiah as a starting point, he explains all that he has lived, learned, experienced in his encounter with Jesus. He really must be on fire with the Holy Spirit, because his words slam into the eunuch and take root. Right there, in the middle of the wilderness, the eunuch knows that what Philip has just told him is going to change his life forever. Miraculously, there in the desert, the road leads them to water. Maybe the eunuch has been particularly mesmerized by the stories of baptism. He says, “’Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” “Prevent,” koluo in Greek, is a word that appears in the Bible when walls are coming down. Once upon a time Jesus said, “Don’t stop – don’t koluo – the little children from coming to me.” The chariot stops. Philip and the eunuch get out, and together they are immersed in the water of a new life, of a new reality. They are in this together, and the mutual respect they show each other is stunning. Philip accepts this man, whose status as a member of a sexual minority is plain for all the world to see. Philip doesn’t shame him. He doesn’t tell the eunuch to “go and sin no more.” He doesn’t tell him to go find some ex-eunuch ministry before he can be baptized. And in turn, the eunuch doesn’t ask Philip to tone down his proclamation of the radical gospel he is preaching. They know that they are part of something that is so much bigger than either of them, and yet so utterly dependent on both of them.

And they know something more: they know that this new life they are entering will be an identity marker for them. Whatever this movement is – this “Christian” thing, this call to tear down barriers between us and build up a better world – this is now a part of who they are. It is right up there with being a eunuch, or a Jew, or an Ethiopian, or a Palestinian. It is something they are both caught up in. It is in a way, something beyond their control. And yet it is something that they will choose for themselves – not just a system of belief, not just a lovely faith community to be part of, and much more than a vocation: this is now part of their identities. It is part of who they are.

This is the moment when the notion of Christian identity is formed. The eunuch and Philip have been invited to perceive this together, to understand it for themselves. You and I are invited to get up in that chariot with them. In that liminal space, we are invited to engage the transgressive power of authentic Christian faith. We are invited to understand it, to choose it, and to claim it as an identity marker — something that we know as deeply as we know any other part of ourselves. Amen.

Originally preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Hoboken, NJ, May 6, 2012

Fear and the exponential function

Courier article

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” So says Al Bartlett, a now retired US professor of Physics, who has given the same talk on this topic nearly two thousand times over the last forty years. I think he has a point, and I’d like to explain why, with particular reference to the Ebola epidemic now taking root in West Africa.

A quick refresher on the exponential function – that is, on what it means when something grows exponentially. Exponential growth occurs whenever something grows at a constant rate – for example, an economy that is growing at 5% a year. So if we begin with 100 widgets of production, and our production grows by 5% then after 1 year we will have 105 widgets. If the growth continues then after another year we will have 110.25 widgets. After another year we will have 115.7625 widgets. Notice that the amount added on increases each time – 5 widgets in the first year, 5 and a quarter in the second year, five and a half in the third year. That is because the underlying quantity has increased. So exponential growth is not simply adding on a fixed amount each year, it is adding on an increasing amount each year.

The interesting thing about exponential growth, and what makes it so marvellous and miraculous and devastating, is something called ‘doubling time’. When a certain percentage of growth is maintained over time then we can expect the underlying quantity to double at a particular rate. For example, if growth is maintained at 7.5% a year then the underlying quantity will double (approximately) every ten years. This is well understood in financial circles, and is seen as the ‘miracle of compound interest’, whereby your bank balance – at least when interest rates are higher than they are at the moment – increases significantly year on year, so long as it is left untouched.

The reason why I want to talk about the exponential function again is because I see it as extremely relevant to understanding why the Ebola epidemic is such a cause for concern. I want to argue that we need to be a little more frightened than we are at the moment, in order that we end up being much less frightened overall. I’m sure we are all familiar with the nature of the Ebola virus, and the ghastly death that it causes in the majority of people who have succumbed to the disease. What seems to be less widely understood is that the number of people who are becoming infected with the disease is growing exponentially, with a ‘doubling time’ of around three weeks. If the virus is left to grow in the human population unchecked, then we are looking at some very scary projections. The trouble is that so far our political responses seem to be marked mostly by complacency.

It has been assumed that Ebola would not be able to spread rapidly in a Western country, due to our highly advanced health systems, and also to what might be called either a ‘scientifically informed common sense’ or a ‘reasonable sense of disgust’. There are particular cultural habits in West Africa which have enabled the virus to spread more rapidly, especially due to funeral practices, and even if we had similar habits in this country, I think that we would let go of them quite rapidly once we understood that they enabled the disease to spread. However, as I write this column there is coverage from Texas of an outbreak of Ebola there, where it would seem that best practice was not followed, even in an advanced hospital. I shall continue to watch with interest to see how widespread the infection becomes.

Have you ever watched one of those movies that is about an epidemic, where the senior ‘man in charge’ of the US response starts telling people what is going on, and how scary it is? Well that person in real life is called Tom Frieden, and he is the Director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He recently said this: “The speed at which things are moving on the ground, it’s hard for people to get their minds around. People don’t understand the concept of exponential growth. Exponential growth in the context of three weeks means: ‘If I know that X needs to be done, and I work my butt off and get it done in three weeks, it’s now half as good as it needs to be.’ ”

Put simply, if we are to ensure that this outbreak of Ebola is contained, we need to take much stronger and sterner measures at an early stage. We need to contain the outbreak and prevent it from expanding, and such measures would include (for example) establishing strict quarantine measures for any travellers coming to this country from West Africa. Such a process would undoubtedly be a cue for squeals of outrage from the politically correct, and would be denounced as ‘racist’ and (much worse) profoundly inconvenient for those who want to take advantage of air travel around the globe. I think that such things are luxuries, and if we are to prevent a serious health crisis in our own country, we need to take much more direct measures immediately. A few weeks of extra hassle and fewer options is a small price to pay set against the horror and squalor than an uncontrolled outbreak would bring.

What we face with the Ebola crisis (at least for those of us who live in the rich West) is not necessarily an existential crisis. There is no element of the disease that cannot be handled by our health care and social welfare systems – so long as we act in good time, with all proper caution and due diligence. Where my concern lies is not in our physical capacity to deal with this, but with our decision making processes, that is, with the political leadership that we presently endure – and that is not a point about a particular person but about the quality of the political class as a whole. My fear is about their fears – that they are more afraid of short-term unpopularity brought about by seeming politically incorrect and draconian, rather than being afraid of what the unchecked exponential growth of a contagious disease will cause. As another US expert has put it: “The virus is moving on virus time; we’re moving on bureaucracy or program time.” That’s not good enough.

(Quotations found here)

We won’t win with weapons of war

Courier article

In a speech about the crisis in the Middle East, which he gave on September 26th, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said “My Lords, a danger of this debate is that we speak only of Iraq and Syria, only of ISIL, and only of armed force. ISIL and its dreadful barbarity are only one example of a global phenomenon… it is also necessary, over time, that any response to ISIL and to this global danger be undertaken on an ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge and a more remarkable hope than that offered by ISIL. We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society… if we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they may be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.”

I am delighted after all the years of politically correct pabulum that our overlords normally spout, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with first-hand experience of Islamic terror who is prepared to speak the plain truth. We are engaged in a profound civilisational struggle, and, put simply, if we solely rely on bombs and guns we will never win – and all the many blessings of our own tolerant civilisation will be snuffed out.

The Archbishop’s central point is that we need ‘a better story’. Much of our discourse, from politicians and the media is frighteningly shallow. “Ooh look, bad guys are chopping heads off, they must be evil, let’s go and bomb them.” We have to engage with these issues at a much deeper level. We need to understand the part that our own society has played in leading up to the present crisis – and by that I do not mean simply referencing previous invasions of Iraq.

After all, there has been warfare between the different societies and nations for rather a long time – has there, indeed, ever been a time of peace? Simply to look at the history between Islam and Christendom, it was born in warfare (Muhammed was a remarkably gifted warrior and general) and that has never changed. Islam expanded militarily, first pushing back and forcibly converting the Eastern Roman Empire and also conquering Spain. The Western European lands pushed back, first with the Crusades (much misunderstood) but then much more substantially after the Industrial Revolution, first with Napoleon’s incursions into Egypt and then the more directly imperial processes through the 19th and 20th Centuries.

One of the most misleading parts of the conventional story that is broadcast is the notion that the terrorists are ‘medieval’, which is a profound calumny of the ways of thinking that lie behind our own delusions of ‘progress’. On the contrary, the forms of Islamic terrorism that so disturb the world today are profoundly Modern. They are intolerant of difference and particularity and excessively intellectually focussed – in other words, they are a form of fundamentalism in just the same way that Christian fundamentalism is, and also in just the same way that the conventional Western understanding of science is (think of Richard Dawkins as the best exemplar of that attitude).

This terrorism is fuelled by the sense that elements of their society which are valued, which are important, which constitute their identity are at risk of being obliterated by the overwhelming force of Western culture. As we are within Western culture, I don’t believe we often ponder just how dominating our technocratic patterns of life are. It is as if people are talking together in a quiet cafe on a street corner, and then a truck comes in with industrial grade amplification and the Rolling Stones start playing a concert out front. The patrons of the cafe are no longer able to think coherently, let alone talk and continue their conversation. Western culture has many things to learn from non-Western societies, things which it once valued but has forgotten. Perhaps we might learn how to turn our own volume down, and start listening to the still, small voice of calm which might – just might – have something to tell us about how to move forward in our present impasse.

However, this might seem to imply not only that Western society is ‘to blame’ for what is presently happening and, worse, that our past behaviour justifies the terrorists. This is not the case. One injustice does not legitimise another. To say that it does is to identify oneself as a ‘barbarian’, that is, one that has neither faith nor civilisation. In just the same way that the present crisis asks profound questions of our Western culture, so too does it ask some very sharp and painful questions of Islamic society. The muslim world is also called to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they have the resources within their own religious tradition to develop in a more peaceful direction. This is what Pope Benedict discussed in his Regensburg address in 2006, a speech which was inevitably misunderstood by our own pathetically ignorant media, but which repays attention at this time.

After all, there are many strengths and weaknesses in Islamic thought – as with other faiths (and non-faiths!). Why is it that if we look at the world today, the overwhelming majority of conflicts involve Islam, such that there is a ‘ring of fire’ around the muslim world? If we start to list the names it is striking how a remarkable diversity of human contexts has given rise to the repeated expression of a militant Islam which resorts to despicable acts of terror in order to advance what is self-identified as a religious mission. There is Boko Haram in Nigeria, where Christian daughters are kidnapped and sold into ‘marriage’. There is the Taliban, determined to physically eliminate all evidence of other faiths and societies in Afghanistan. There is Hamas, explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the nation state of Israel. There is also ISIS, the enemy which is now being used to justify our continued military intervention in the Middle Eastern oil fields.

If we are to succeed in our struggle for peaceful co-existence then we need to acknowledge that this is a spiritual aim that needs spiritual resources. Clearly, when it comes to discussing the nature of that struggle both the Archbishop and I have well understood commitments that shape how we understand the issues. Yet for the purposes of this column I am very happy to concede it may not be Christianity that we need, it may be something else. What I would insist upon is the need to tell a better story – to share a vision of full human flourishing which includes all human beings simply because they are human beings. I believe that it is the society that can best articulate such a compelling vision that will not simply win this struggle, but will deserve to do so too.