Monday, December 14, 2015

Queueing for everything but a shot at a decent life

The queue seemed to have been virtually stationery for an hour. Apparently it was inching towards the tiny door in the wooden shack with the label 'distribution point' above it right next to the listening caravan. People kept yelling 'Simon' but they didn't want me; they wanted a twenty-something, raven haired lad with a mischievous smile who was somewhere in or around the hut. Today was shoes. People wanting trousers, who'd waited an hour before they found out, began to drift away disappointed, grumbling. They come to our small group asking if we have shoes. But we only had what we were wearing.

Queueing is part of camp life. People shift from one queue to another through the day: a queue for a clothing handout, a queue for a hot meal, a queue for water for washing or cooking, a queue to use the toilets. There's not a lot else for folk to do during day light hours except queue. But it's no life for anyone.

Our group was a mixed bag of refugees, volunteers and visitors. I was having an animated conversation with a brother from the Taize community who I had just met and who was asking me about the listening project. A trio from a London church had just pitched up wondering where they should leave the contents of a seven-and-a-half ton truck. Samir is talking easily to residents and visitors alike, graciously dealing with questions while making sure all the folk in his care have rice and sugar from the box I've just given him.

Earlier we had been in the Afghan cafe, a sweat box where hot sweet tea arrived in your hands before you'd found a seat. It was humming with people. Europeans, Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Iranians and others were crammed into what seating there was. It was a camp meeting where representatives of ACTED, the French NGO sent by the court to enact its judgement against the French government, were talking about water, sanitation and shelters. They were outlining plans and then listening to comments and suggestions from all the residents' representatives.

The meeting happened in English and Arabic and was generally good-natured. I had a sense of being at the birth of a town council, where representatives of the residents would express their views, make their demands, and would receive a courteous and sympathetic hearing from the agencies and volunteers present. Everyone seems to want to make the jungle work - everyone except the French government and their representatives ringing the perimeter of this disused chemical site in riot gear, packing assault weapons and shades, who make life for residents harder than it need be. In the cafe voices appealed for a meeting with the police but ACTED could not deliver this; they'd ask, but... They can deliver cleaner toilets, better water, more coordinated distribution of food and clothing; and all that is welcome.

Following all this as best I could, I was reminded that historians tell us that revolutions are sparked not by the very hungry and dirt poor but by those who have begun to taste a little prosperity but who are thwarted from tasting more. The jungle is in that precarious position. Maybe this accounts for the rising tensions within and beyond it. As residents are getting their basic needs met, other needs surface: the need for dignity, being listened to, self-determination, the ability to have some mastery over their ultimate fate. That is still denied them as the French and UK governments stick doggedly to their denial of the camp's existence or the possibly legitimate claims of many hundreds of its residents for asylum In either country. Moves are afoot to test some claims. Hopefully that will lead the floodgates opening. Frankly we could absorb the entire population of the camp in the UK without anyone batting an eyelid.

I had come that day, with Linda, to see how the listening project was shaping up, meet a few interested people and pass on a bit more food to Samir. We made new friends, met up with old ones, shared amazing hospitality in Samir's kitchen as he dished up a feast of bean stew and thick salty porridge.

The camp has changed since my first visit a month ago. There are more toilets (though they still take your breath away!) and more water points; there are more and more shelters being put up, signs of some permanence as residents get set for a European winter; and at the far end of the camp, the ground is being cleared for a bunch of shipping containers, accommodation for 1200 people out of a population of 6,000+, being put onsite by the French government. There is a feeling - especially among those present at the meeting in the Afghan cafe - that the jungle is becoming an established township, similar to the kind you find across sub-Saharan Africa or clinging to the sides of cities in Latin America and South and South East Asia. You don't expect to stumble across one in a G8 country. But it's here and its taking root and shape and becoming home to thousands of people.

By next summer, if it's still here, it will be feeding Calais' informal economy with workers prepared to do a shift for pennies in order to have cash to feed the growing economy within the jungle. There's probably a really interesting development study to be done about the place. But what's more important is that the people resident there are recognised as human beings with needs and a just claim for our attention, so the jungle can be denuded of its citizens as they are granted asylum among us.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Questions ahead of reckless action

So, it looks like we're going for a vote on taking military action in Syria tomorrow which means that the government is confident of getting a majority in favour. It saddens me that yet again our country is doing the easy thing - joining with a braying multitude in taking ineffectual action - rather than the right thing.

Queueing up behind a range of airforces already pummelling Syrian cities enables us to say that we are joining the war on terror at a new level. But it doesn't really solve anything. Cutting off Isil's funds would severely dent their ability to run their fiefdom. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to friends who work near the region who were lamenting the fact that because of the downturn in the Russian economy, many of their neighbours sons were returning home only to be recruited as drivers and construction workers, general labourers nad yes, fighters by Isil. They pay better wages than the local economy can afford, money that does come home from those taking Isil's shilling.

So I have three questions about the situation that I'm I'm pretty sure I've not heard answers to.

The first is, why are we still buying oil from Syria and Northern Iraq when we know that the money on those oil sales is going into Isil's bank account? Oil embargoes are difficult but can and have been effective. The second is why are we selling weapons to countries in the Gulf region when we know that many of those weapons are being sold on to Isil by their sympathisers? And the third is why are the banks that handle Isil's millions not being stripped of their banking licences since they are in flagrant breach of international treaties governing money laundering and handling of funds from illegal activities?

All we will do as we embark on this proposed course of action is create more refugees, more helpless and hopeless people travelling out of the region into Europe in search of sanctuary. As a result of MPs voting with the government tomorrow, the jungle in Calais will swell by hundreds if not thousands of desperate people, people we are unwilling to acknowledge as a country, let alone help. These people will be part of the collateral damage of our rush to war; they'll be knocking on our door, seeking escape from the hell we will have helped to create.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

caravans and libraries, sharing food and tears under Calais' darkening skies

I arrived for my third visit to the so-called jungle in Calais yesterday, thirty-six hours after fire has destroyed about 50 homes. Men are digging out the charred remains of tents and makeshift structures caught up in the inferno. Some have found fresh tents to live in but many are looking at another night in the open air.

The fire scorched and melted some of the outer fence of St Michael’s church; that fence is made of plastic sheeting, the main building material in the camp.

Water stands in lakes across the roads and tracks, churned to a thick, gloopy mud that makes parts of the site resemble a first world war battle field. This is partly due to rain and partly to the French fire brigade who eventually turned up to the blaze.

The camp is stretching out towards and along the motorway that takes travellers to the port. In the shade of some of the £7m fencing that our government provided to keep the refugees enclosed in this space, structures are going up made of four by two and plastic sheet, big enough for a couple but often occupied by half a dozen or so. They are packed close together which is why a spark from a fire – lit for warmth and cooking – causes such wide-spread damage. The amazing thing is that there aren’t more of them and that no one’s been badly hurt.

We were delivering caravans, one for our proposed listening project, others for people to live in – especially the more vulnerable camp dwellers (families with small children; women on their own). We were also deliveries a heap of clothes and duvets, boots and waterproofs generously donated by people from our church. For some of our party, it was a first visit. One seasoned visitor to slum communities in India was shocked and troubled at what he saw. Some went off to help guys build shelters, others to meet residents and hear their stories.

I was keen to catch up with Samir as I had a box of food for him to use in his kitchen. He received it and looked inside to see what there was. Then he distributed bags of rice, onions and oil to representatives of the families or groups that he has responsibility for, keeping just a single bag for himself. The generosity of the poorest never ceases to amaze me.

He wanted to show me the library and education centre housed three shelters along from his kitchen. The library is stocked with books – dictionaries for those learning European languages, histories, books in Arabic, novels in English – as well as a computer (although the generator is broken and someone has stolen the modem!) It is amazing that in the midst of the relentless difficulties of living in this place, people come to read, to talk about ideas, share stories and learn languages. 

Humans are amazing. These people are here because of the worst that men do but what we see as we visit is the best that people are capable of. It’s profoundly humbling. As we embraced at the end of the day, I felt I was leaving my brother in this dark and desolate place.

One of our group went to the Syrian village where a woman called Miriam has a two-week old baby. She’s received no pre- or post-natal care; the family is in an unheated caravan (which is at least water-tight), has no access to warm water and has to use portable toilets that would shame the fifth day of a music festival. This is no place for a two week baby and a nursing mother still recovering from labour.

So, we have a dream: can we find somewhere for this family; somewhere safe, dry, warm, with access to some basic healthcare and good sanitation? Ideally, we’d like to find a family who could offer hospitality to this family somewhere in France. And, yes, we know there are all sorts of mountains in the way of this – they are undocumented, they don’t speak the language, what if there is an emergency… 

But this is the time of year for impossible mountains to be scaled. A long time ago, another Miriam had a baby in less than ideal circumstances – though she probably had family around her and was able to have her son in a warm and secure place. That and baby soon had to flee because of the murderous intentions of their government, living as homeless refugees for a number of years.
Yet that boy was Emmanuel, the Word made flesh, God moving into our neighbourhood so he could be with us.

So those of you who pray, please pray for Miriam and her family; for Samir and the group he is responsible for and the work he does alongside other volunteers community-building and peace-making; for everyone caught in this shanty town on the edge of a city in a G8 country, ignored by the host, shunned by its neighbours, left in a limbo of indifference.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Facing reality over a feast in the jungle

This week I returned to the camp in Calais that's known as the Jungle. It was only a fortnight since my first visit but a lot had changed. Many more permanent structures had been built and a number were under construction as we walked through the central area of the settlement. On top of that toilets and shower rooms had been installed in various places and there seemed to be more generators powering electric lights in the shops and cafes that line the main drag through the camp.

In one sense all this development is good; in another, it suggests that the jungle will become a permanent fixture, a growing shanty town on the edge of Calais, the end of the line for so many people fleeing persecution and war.

People like a man from Sudan who showed me his village within the settlement. There are some solid structures - including a kitchen he's erected where he and his friends cook for a couple of dozen people every day - but mostly people are living in a rag-tag mix of tents, some supplemented by plastic sheeting, but all being ripped apart by the wind that cut through the camp on a mild but blowy day. The sound of flapping plastic formed a backdrop to every conversation.

We were offered iced tea and hot, very strong, very sweet black coffee and the chance to meet some of his fellow-countrymen in the his kitchen. Some are bright and smiling, optimistic that this is a transit camp. Others have built solid structures from wood and tarpaulin, knowing that this will be their home for the foreseeable future and they'd better make the best of it. People talk of their hope of finding a safe place, a peaceful and secure life.

As we walked in the early afternoon we came upon clutches of men attempting to light fires to cook on. One group had dug a pit, lined it with kindling-sized pieces of wood and were attempting to the light the cardboard they hoped would enable them to create a camp fire. But already everything is too damp to catch. I wonder what their lives will be like when winter sets in and damp turns to wet and the frozen ground is too hard to dig.

We came upon a quartet digging down into the sandy soil and filling plastic bags to be weights holding the sides of their tents to the ground. We followed them to where they were building their shelter from heavy plastic sheeting, held up by tree boughs stripped of their foliage. It didn't look promising, but it's better than nothing.

We'd had lunch with our Sudanese friend at an Afghan cafe, along with Tom, a monk and peacemaker, a volunteer increasingly concerned about the well-being of the host of inspiring mainly young people from across Europe who have come to help out. There are no organisations here, no NGOs with settled ways of doing things which can direct the energies of these folk and ensure that they are working within a framework that includes time off and away, time to recharge batteries that are quickly drained.

Tom talks of the need for places to chill, debrief, let the swirl of emotions engulfing them like smoke from the kitchen fires, dissipate in a controlled and healing way. He fears for many of them. And as if to prove his point, we run across a young British man, who's wired and nervy, needing a light for his cigarette, while his staccato speech jumps from one story to another with no narrative thread. He's been working since seven this morning and wants a lift to the warehouse (at least a half hour walk away) in order to do his evening shift. It's getting on for 5pm. He needs down time and a square meal and a chance to kick his heals on the beach or visit a bar far away from here with a bunch of mates. But that won't happen

So, we're returning with a caravan to help establish a kind of listening project for volunteers. It'll be a place where anyone can sit and chill, talk about what they're doing, how they're doing, how they're feeling. It'll be a place where people can find themselves and deal with the conflicting emotions that are the inevitable consequence of working constantly day-in, day-out for days on end. It's a work in progress, an idea that was taking shape over lunch - a spectacular feast of spicy chicken, omelettes and bread - and continues to develop as we talk about it and plan to get the first part of it in place.

Watch this space...

In the meantime, I worry for my Sudanese friends as the winter hits. Today in England the temperature was down to 4 degrees. It's due to be 8 degrees when we return on Monday, half the temperature it was when we were there three days ago. I really do not know how my friends are going to cope, how they'll keep warm and fed, and most of all how they will not despair in the chill of a northern European winter.

Oh, and the showers I mentioned, these are sheds with a tiled floor, rudimentary drainage and no running water. To wash, you go inside with a bucket of cold water taken from one of the taps being put in and do your best. It's better than it was but it doesn't even get close to meeting minimal requirements for human decency. The jungle lives up to its name even in its most developed elements.

It cries out for governments and NGOs to acknowledge its existence and make it a civilised place of safety for desperate people.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

God in the darkness

The ghastly heart-breaking events in Paris on Friday evening cast a chill over everything. Today under leaden rain-filled skies we spent time on London's south bank with good friends, loafing and laughing in first one cafe, then another.

Occasionally the conversation drifted towards Paris and what if... But we listened to the free jazz, enjoyed excellent coffee and walnut cake and luxuriated in our freedom to do what the hell we liked.

And my thoughts have been Calais intermittently through the day, the past few days. I've wondered about the people I met a week ago, wondered about the precariousness of their lives in the grim tarpaulin ghetto, under increasingly wintery skies, wondered about their fragile hopes.

The horror of what was visited on the citizens of Paris on Friday - which could so easily be visited on us - reminded me that for so many, this is a daily reality. Before Paris, suicide bombers created carnage in Lebanon and before that barrel bombs fell on Damascus suburbs, and gunmen strafed shoppers in a South Sudanese market, and Libyans live in fear of their neighbours, and...

...And so the litany of fear and conflict continues.

In our conversation today, my friend asked 'where was God on Friday night?' The answer that now trips off the tongue because it's the one Eli Wiesel offered when asked the same question about Auschwitz, is that he was on the streets, in the restaurants, in the night club and football stadium, feeling the kiss of shrapnel, the jarring penetration of bullets.

Is it the whole answer? No. Perhaps he was in the queues of Parisians desperate to give blood to save the lives of strangers; perhaps he was in the policemen painstakingly removing the dead, trying to identify the bodies for grieving relatives; perhaps he was in the congregations of Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all praying for an end to the darkness. Of course, he was in all those places and more.

And he is in the jungle, meeting his people in St Michael's, energising the doctors volunteering with the sick, in the hands and eyes of the poor offering their food to you, in the stories of flight and hope, in the tears of rage and exhaustion, in the dogged determination to see people receive justice and the camp be consigned to history.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot snuff it out however hard it tries, because the darkness doesn't get it, because the darkness is only an absence. The light is a presence, always and forever leaking in through the cracks and prevailing. If that wasn't true, we'd have retreated to hide in our houses and closed our hearts to the strangers in our midst. But it is true, so we go into the world and do what we can do and leave the outcome to God, the source of the light.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reflections from the jungle

If you want your heart broken, sit in the sand of Calais' jungle (the ramshackle refugee community in the shadow of the docks, barely 30 miles from our shores) and listen to a Damascus shop keeper speak of his grief at being separated from his family and ending up here. Then look at the pictures of two bright and beaming  girls, four and two, that he longs to hold and whose voices he can hardly bear to hear on the phone when he is able to get through to them.

Mahmoud is lost in the jungle, talking of his plans with eyes that betray the fact he's lost all hope of being anywhere but here.

Feeling the solid presence of my passport in my back pocket, I listen to this former soldier whose choice was to leave his country or join his government's war against his neighbours share his story in faltering English in the hope that telling it one more time might lead to a different outcome. Rarely have I felt so helplessly privileged.

He, like so many others, is lost in the jungle; lost in a limbo of indifference where the French authorities see them as an embarrassment and the UK government refuses to see them at all.

Everywhere you look new structures are rising, more permanent than the make-shift tents they are replacing; shops, cafes, mosques, a church, a women and children's centre (with its blunt warning: no photography, no journalists), a bicycle repair shop, a pedal driven generator for charging mobiles, all signs that even the despairing try to make a life that works for them.

I was tagging along with various concerned faith and civic leaders from the UK and had the privilege of meeting representatives of three French NGOs at the sharp end of offering support to those in the jungle. They estimate that there are some 6,000 people there but the number fluctuates as the French authorities move some out while others move in (having made the trek from southern Europe, often on foot). They also estimate that 90% of them are asylum seekers - fleeing war, oppression and persecution - not economic migrants. And they argue that the heightened security (UK-funded razor wire, van loads of French riot police) has played into the hands of the people smugglers - mafia as they call them - and sent the prices they charge spiralling upwards.

It was a day of tears. Listening to Mahmoud and seeing the pictures of his girls (so like my granddaughters) cut me in half. Worshipping with Ethiopian Orthodox brothers and sisters in the increasingly solid St Michael's Church was moving beyond words. Even in the midst of this horror, God is with his people. And after worship they laid on a feast; I never cease to be amazed and humbled at the open-hearted generosity of the poorest of the earth.

So, I come home resolved to do the one thing that everyone we met asked of us: lobby the government to open its eyes and start processing asylum applications in or near the camp. Many who have made it this far have relatives in the UK - parents, spouses, siblings or children - and therefore have a good claim to having their claims upheld. Only our indifference keeps them out.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Gentrification and its opposites

And here is said Indy article. Worth a read - both the ones at the top of the page

Mixing with the pioneers

In the morning I have the rare privilege of speaking at the gathering of one of my favourite organisations on the planet, Urban Expression. Gathered at IMC in Selly Oak will be 60 or so of the most creative and fearless Kingdom pioneers.

I'll be reflecting with them on Paul the monetary jester, thinking about his upside down and back to front take on economics in the hope that it will stimulate people to think about how resources can be pooled, invested, used, released, spent (pick any word you like) to see God's Kingdom erupt among the poorest and most marginalised in our communities.

Hopefully, I'll leave with lots to think about, ideas that I'll be able to take back to my situation in Bromley.

And talking of my stomping ground, we made to the independent today as outer London boroughs are now beginning to show some of the signs of multiple deprivation seen in inner boroughs for generations. For some time now I've been calling this the donutification of the city (not sure it's original), the turning of London into a city more like Paris, where the centre is the province of the rich and well-to-do while the poor are crammed into outer city estates.

I'll try to find the article and put the link up tomorrow. I'll also reflect further on what this might mean for church and civic life in the borough.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A prayer on the day after the revolution before...

It's virtually a day since Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership, a day described as momentous or calamitous depending on which way you voted. I'm deep in Cathar country in South West France, with the spirit of heresy heavy in the air, feeling detached and nervous, yet strangely elated and hopeful.

For the first time in my political life I have voted for three individuals and they have each been chosen for the offices for which they'd been nominated - Corbyn, Tom Watson (as his deputy) and Sadiq Khan (as the Labour mayoral candidate).

My choices mean that I'm an idiot who knows nothing about that this will mean for the real Labour Party, according to some of my friends on Facebook; or that I am riding the wave of history, in the vanguard of a new movement that will not only talk about justice and equality, but bring it about in the fulness of time.

I'm not sure I agree with either camp to be honest. I voted as I did because I'm fed up of grey people, afraid of their own shadows, of being haunted in the media because of some off the cuff remark, telling me that they are the future. If that's true, then God help us; in the words of the peerless Nick Cave, 'We are mostly lost...'. I voted as I did because I believe the Labour Party is about equality, social progress, sensible interventionist economics and meeting the aspirations of ordinary people of every gender, race, religion, educational attainment, whatever.

Apparently, we needed to vote for a leader who could win in 2020 and therefore one who spoke the language of free markets and neoliberal politics, one who subscribed to a neocon view of the world and is therefore pro-EU, pro-Nato, pro-liberal interventionism and pro-Trident. I wonder. If I wanted any of that and nothing else, I'd vote for David Cameron as he seems to have that corner well and truly sown up. I'm not interested in a pale imitation of it because a pale imitation of a lie is still a lie.

Probably by the time I board the ferry a week tomorrow all hell will have broken loose with every faction of the Labour Party threatening court action against every other faction. I'm beginning to think I joined this party because it is so much like the church, so prone to split and fight over matters of arcane doctrine, so unwilling to accept difference, find common ground and press on towards agreed goals, so hard-pushed to forgive past slights. Of course, I remain a part of the church despite its infantile factionalism because I believe it stands for something bigger, better and more wonderful than that, so perhaps I can hang with a party that manifests the same tendencies.

My prayer for the coming weeks is that we will find a language and a platform to unite rather than rend asunder. I've been praying that for the church for most of my adult life and it's a prayer that's been answered in part; but then in this world getting part of what we crave is pretty good.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Enjoying our rare privileges

The deed is done. We are booked to travel to and from France in September. And we have booked our last night in Amiens (our favourite city) to have a final meal sitting by the river in the late summer sunshine.

All that's left is to decide our route to and from the South West - we have a gite between Toulouse and Carcassonne - but we're pondering twenty-four hours in Bordeaux.

Holidays are a wonderful thing. We tend to take for granted our ability to take off for a couple of weeks, secure in the knowledge that we'll have money in the bank to spend on our travels and a home to return to (that friends will have kept an eye on in our absence).

I was reminded of this privilege as I read Giles Fraser reflecting in today's Guardian on his trip St Michael's church in the jungle at Calais. He marvelled at the luck/grace of God that put him in possession of the little red book that enables us to freely cross borders, while so many of our brothers and sisters - with whom he prayed on Thursday (I think) - do not.

It is not a reason not to take holidays. But it is a reason to reflect on what we can do to correct an injustice that is visited on too many of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Hearing the full NT choir

Today I have been mostly sorting out the New Testament Theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I've delivered it four times now (I think) and it is in need of a bit of a refreshment. I am also revisiting the essay questions in a bid to weed out the ones that don't really reflect the current unit content.

The whole exercise has got me thinking about how we handle NT theology in our churches. Do our teaching programmes reflect an understanding of the joined-up nature of the New Testament or do we just create sermon series as discrete entities with no reference to how to they relate to other series? I realise that in any well-rounded teaching programme in a church, there'll be attention paid to Old Testament texts as well as NT ones.

The grand daddy of NT theology - Johan Philip Gabler - argued that we pursue the discipline in order to renew the doctrines of the church in every generation. His discipline has developed in a variety of ways but two strong strands lead from him to the current world of scholarship. One is increasingly concerned with the early church as a historical phenomenon to be studied as we would study any other movement in history. The modern champion of this position is Heikki Raisanen who, building on Wrede, has produced some interesting historical studies but nothing to equip the church for its mission in the twenty-first century.

The other strand continues to look for ways of reading and understanding the New Testament in the contemporary world in a way that equips the church to bear witness to its central figure. There are many champions of this approach - among those with recent books covering the territory are Howard Marshall and Frank Matera, and from the recent past, the wonderful George Caird.

As I tweak the approach this unit takes to NT theology, I have two aims. The first is that I want to help students grasp the breadth and diversity of the NT witness to Jesus, to gain the ability to read each text on its own merits before trying to see how it agrees (or otherwise) with other texts. In particular, I am keen to encourage students not to read everything through Pauline eyes! So we look at 1 Peter and James and assess their unique voice before adding it to the NT choir.

The second is that I want to encourage everyone who takes this class, and who is headed into pastoral or teaching ministry of some kind (an overwhelming majority), to think about how they will structure their approach to preaching the NT in the light of this unit. I think this particularly applies when we are thinking of doing some kind of primer in Christian basics. Do we just lift something off the shelf or do we try to create our own in the light of what the likes of Marshall, Matera, Caird and others are saying about New Testament theology?

But I believe it applies more generally. Is our version of the Christian faith simply Pauline or do we read the gospels on their own merits, hear the voices of the other writers with equal clarity to that of Paul. Now, don't get me wrong, I am pursuing detailed study of Paul; I continue to find him an intriguing, restless witness to a transforming encounter with Jesus, a man who wanted whole communities to experience what he had.

But he is not the entirety of the New Testament; and the other writers must not be assumed to be in agreement with him. They deserve at least to be heard in their own terms. The author of 1 Peter is an extraordinary voice, James a wonderful, simple purveyor of an intriguing view of Jesus, Revelation a roller coaster of missional engagement with an oppressive empire, and so on...

The question, I guess, is how do we ensure our churches get to hear the full NT choir? And does the unit I teach offer any help to some fledgling preachers, teachers and church leaders?

Still waiting for the debate to start...

Several of my Facebook friends have been posting about the Labour leadership election, saying that we need someone who can win. It's not enough to have good ideas, we need power, hey write; and therefore we need to elect the candidate who will repeat the Blair marvel.

I agree we need a government that is not run by Cameron and Osborne in the interests of the haves at the expense of the have nots. But booting out the Tories is not an end in itself. They need to be replaced by a government that stands for something; better still, that stands for someone, namely the poorest and most vulnerable in a way that ensures work, education, healthcare and housing is evenly spread across society.

I haven't finally decided who I am voting for in the Labour leadership contest. But I have decided to rule out those candidates who seem to spend their time attacking other labour figures rather than the government; and those candidates who do nothing to foster a genuine debate on the kind of world we want for our children - and how we might achieve it.

So, how do the various candidates think we will achieve a more equal society? Do they think that there's an alternative to the view that markets solve every problem from industrial innovation to distributing healthcare? How are they actually going to solve the housing crisis? And do we really think that all our defence eggs should be in the nuclear deterrent basket?

Now the questions make me sound like a Corbynite. But actually, they are the questions that we should have been asking for years because the current answers we have to those questions are clearly not delivering equality, good services, peace and all the other things we want for our children. The current answers have delivered at least three UK recessions and one major global financial meltdown, the fallout from which we are still living with. Maybe those answers need to be revisited?

So, when are going to start the debate on these vital issues?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seeing the issues through the smoke

And so the Calais saga continues and instead of constantly shouting at the radio - 'what about the industrial action?' - to the annoyance of my wife and anyone else within earshot, I thought I'd return to the story here.

Yes, there are a lot of migrants in Calais and yes, they are trying to get to UK (because despite our repeated warning that they will not be welcome here, they feel a bit of racist abuse is preferable to being blown up, shot at, rendered homeless by armed factions, or whatever horror they are fleeing|). And yes, we have got to address this issue which is taking on crisis proportions.

But the situation is exacerbated, inflamed, stoked up by the industrial dispute affecting the port of Calais. On 1 July the Channel Tunnel company closed My Ferry Link, a service it owned that operated three boats offering twelve or more sailings a day. One of those boats was a dedicated commercial vehicle carrier. 600 workers stood to lose their jobs in a region of France that already has 13% unemployment

On top of that another ferry operator, DFDS, who were prepared to take on the boats but not their workers, found itself drawn into the dispute. The upshot of this is that the my ferry link vessels are permanently docked in Calais (having been disabled by their redundant crews) and port staff have refused to handle DFDS boats (which are now mostly sailing to Dunkirk).

So there are fewer places available on the ships that are still running and fewer berths for those ships to dock at in Calais. Hence the delays. If you remove twelve or more crossings a day on the busiest route into France, it's quickly going to lead to tail-backs on either side of the channel. Those delays cause queues of stationary vehicles which become a target for people desperate to cross to England by any means they can find.

Channel Tunnel security has not been helped by the striking dock workers demonstrating in the mouth of the tunnel, causing damage, burning tyres, disrupting the operator's business.

So, I wonder if the BBC, other news organisations, and the press, could focus a little more on this story in a bid to put pressure on all those involved in the tangled industrial dispute to get that sorted out. If it is sorted out, the port of Calais could fully open, ferries could sail on time, and more commercial vehicles could get about their business rather than joining the longest car park on the M20 and disrupting the lives of people in Kent.

Settling the dispute is not the whole answer to what we're seeing. We have to do something more than wring our hands about the migrant situation and call for the army to be deployed. But settling the dispute would get the port open, the traffic moving,and would enable the operators to focus more on sorting out their security than assuaging the anger of tourists and truckers.

It would also mean that when we go to France in early September, we won't be held up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summers are for updating course material

Today I have been thinking about the New Testament theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I want to make some changes to its content (strictly within the agreed parameters, of course). So I have been reading papers on the atonement, the Holy Spirit and James.

I have decided that my students will get to read Michael Gorman's 'Effecting the new covenant: a (not so) new, new testament model for the atonement' because it's vintage Gorman - and he is a scholar they really need to be acquainted with; Peter David's 'God and the Human situation in the letter of James' because it's one of the few papers that deals with James on its own terms and not as a foil for Paul; but I can't decide on a new paper on the Holy Spirit. I am toying with a paper by Max Turner on Luke-Acts, but it is a quite specific rebuttal of the position adopted by Robert Menzies, rather than a general introduction to Luke's theology of the Holy Spirit, so I'm not sure about it. I think I'll need to keep looking - if anyone has any suggestions, they'd be gratefully received.

The rest of the unit will remain as it is. I'll just be tweaking some of the material to update it, revisiting the bibliography to make sure that it's up-to-date and revising the essay questions. Once that's done, I'm hoping to revise a paper gave at the post-grad seminar with a view to publication and then begin revisions on some on-line units that require a make-over. That should all keep me out of mischief through the summer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The news from France...

So, last week we were in France. After a fabulous weekend in Amiens (one of our favourite cities on the planet), we went to Le Pas Opton, Spring Harvest's French base, for Dutch week. We had a great time with some wonderful Dutch believers.

We went to France through Calais - our usual route - but were being warned ahead of leaving that our journey would be a nightmare and that we might never get there! Well, we did. However, on the Friday we were sailing we set off extra early and went to Dover on the M2 rather than the M20 because operation stack was in operation on that road.

We left extra time because we expected to hit traffic and had been warned that passport control takes longer than it used to. There was nothing on the M2/A2 so our journey took just over an hour. We sailed through passport control with no one manning any of the booths and so no one looking at our passports. We were so early we could not check in for half an hour. On disembarking in Calais we left the port in modest traffic with no disruption.

We expected the return to be worse. True passport control was slow - mainly because there were not enough lanes open - and the timetable was disrupted. But we were sailing within an hour of check-in, which is relatively normal. Admittedly, we were on a ferry that should have left an hour and half before we arrived in the port! Most travellers seemed cheerful enough, however.

So, today on the BBC news there were reports of chaos in Calais caused by an ocean of migrants forcing their way into Britain by any means they could find. This was not what we saw. In fact we didn't see any evidence of the migrant invasion at all on our trip. What the BBC failed to mention is that the main disruption in Calais is caused by an on-going industrial dispute between workers of the company My Ferry Link and the company's owners, the channel tunnel company (hence the disruption to the tunnel over recent days).

The only person who mentioned the industrial action was the man from the Freight Transport Association who thought strikes should be outlawed in the industry. Perhaps a better solution would be what the French government appear to be proposing at a meeting next Monday which is that they take control of My Ferry Link. This would ensure that capacity on the cross channel is not reduced (the dispute is over My Ferry Link's current owners shutting the company down and taking the boats out of the water, thus reducing available space and allowing prices to rise).

It is the industrial action that has given the migrants desperate to get to the UK a chance to risk making the crossing. The result has been a rise in the number of deaths in the water and on the tracks of the channel tunnel (the latest was the body of young man found on top of a train this morning). So part of the solution to the migrant issue would be to settle the industrial action swiftly and justly, increase the capacity of the carriers on the route (either under or over the sea).

There is talk of a big lorry park being built in Kent to free the M20 from becoming a car park from time to time. That sounds good. How about also building a reception centre on this side of the channel so that we could take our fair share of the migrants coming to the EU and not leaving them in the hands of people traffickers?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Whose money, whose decision?

The mantra since the Thatcher-Reagan years (I think based on Milton Friedman's model of the economy) is that the money the government spends is tax payers money. It isn't. Tax payers have paid it to government for them to spend, according to the programmes on which they were elected.

I expect my government to act justly with the money that it has been given stewardship of by the nation's tax payers. For this reason, I expect two things. The first is that everyone who owes tax will pay tax - whether that's individuals or corporations; they will not look for sophisticated ways of avoiding paying what government (elected by all of us - or in our current government's case by barely 25% of us, but that's another blog entirely!) has deemed people should pay.

The second is that I expect government to spend according to principles of justice and equity, fairness and what is in the interest of the well-being of the majority of citizens. I think this means that in moral terms, governments should make decisions ethically. For me that would mean that governments would take seriously what the bible says about money and community, about shared prosperity and the well-being of all. I appreciate others might take a different view, based on a different morality.

So Europe's tax payers are not bailing out Greece, as though Europe's leaders had gone round dragging Euros from reluctant citizens' wallets and purses. No, Europe's governments are using their money (that gathered in taxes which is now theirs to disperse) to do the right thing by Greece. At that very least, it means that Europe's leaders must explain why they have taken the decisions they have and not hide behind their taxpayers. We do not know what they want.

Curiously, we do know what the Greek taxpayers want because they expressed their view on this single issue and an overwhelming majority of them wanted something different from what they are being offered. The fact that Europe's leaders ignore the democratic will of the Greek people nails the lie that they have any interest in the tax payers of any country.

What they do, they do in their own interests and we the people should not be implicated in their ineptitude.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Debt and repentance

In the course of our studies in Luke at LPO this week we have had cause to mention debt (that's because Jesus talked quite a lot about it). It is, of course, impossible to raise the issue of debt without talking about Greece and the current bail-out plan and what Jesus' parable of the two debtors might have to say about it.

In after session conversations it has become that several Dutch guests are very hawkish on this issue. The Greeks need to pay back every Euro. There is recognition that maybe the Greek people are not to blame for previous government action, but in order to apply the teaching of Jesus, there needs to be repentance before there can be forgiveness.

I've never been sure that this is how it works with Jesus. The Kingdom comes to us, wraps us up in its embrace, carries us off into a new adventure with God, so we repent (change our minds about our way of living and change our direction of travel so that we go the way Jesus is going).

But at a deeper and more thoroughly biblical level, I don't think that can have been what Jesus had in mind. He grew up in a biblical tradition of Jubilee where debts were written-off every seven years and after fifty years land and assets were restored to their original owners. So I think in declaring jubilee in Luke 4 ( since he uses a jubilee text from Isaiah 61 to launch his public ministry in his home town). Jesus was declaring  that debts would be written off and the poor get back what had been expropriated by others. Hence his declaration in Luke 6 that the poor are blessed and that the rich are not (something he might have learned from his mother given the content of her song in chapter 1).

Of course, this does not solve the Greek problem. But it does give an interesting theological angle to it that maybe the people of faith across the continent of Europe could be expressing at least as a way of generating a broader debate than that favoured by the bankers.

Oh and while we're at it, why are the bankers who helped previous Greek governments hide their debts and rich Greeks avoid paying anything into the Greek economy by way of taxes, not having to pay off some of the debts thereby incurred by the hapless Greeks? Actually, why aren't any of them in prison for fraud and false accounting?

Does the teaching of Luke's gospel have anything to say about this? I think it probably does....

Reflections on going Dutch

So I'm speaking at Dutch week at LPO and thought I'd post a reflection or two.

The first is that Kees Kraayenoord (our worship leader this week) is outstanding. He's written a couple of songs that I am definitely taking back to Bromley to teach to my lot. The songs are in English, I hasten to add! You can check him out here (though the site's in Dutch!)

The second is that I've had a good attentive audience for the Bible studies and a responsive lot in the evenings. I've had good productive conversations with people who want to take the material we're looking at in Luke's gospel really seriously - which is a huge encouragement to me.

The third is that the weather is fab - how could you not encounter God in such a place?

So, looking forward to day 3 in the Spring Harvest house....

More to follow...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A fresh master class in languid americana

From the moment a single acoustic guitar run heralds the arrival of at least for a little while, you just know that you're in safe hands. Bill Mallonee's new album, Lands and Peoples, continues where last year's Winnowing left off.

Languid, poignant, insightful, life-affirming and provocative, Mallonee's latest collection of 12 self-penned songs is pitch perfect. He and Mariah Rose play everything on songs that are arranged to reveal their depth and beauty.

He has a wonderful turn of phrase that takes the listener into the heart of the human condition without them really realising it until they're in so deep they have no option but to face it.

Faith seems to be hanging by a thread as Mallonee surveys a world overrun by the madness of greed and misfortune. But faith is hanging in there, woven into each track, a faith that is not afraid to name its opposite as a lived experience, a faith that looks reality full in the face and all-but asks 'is that the worst you've got?'

This is not a gospel album and yet it's full of God; he leaks out of the playing and the vocal, sits alongside you as you listen and whispers 'are you hearing this?'

I've said it before,but it bears repeating: Mallonee has hit a rich vein of form that stretches back over his last four albums - not that he was a slouch before this, you understand! These songs are the work of a mature master at the height of his powers. He deserves a huge audience, gathered in small numbers in a myriad intimate gatherings across the land, so we can soak up the wisdom and ask questions...

Oh that we could get him to Britain...

You check it out and buy it here. Go on, treat yourselves, you'll not be disappointed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

IMF living up to its reputation

So Christine Lagarde has endorsed George Osborne's economic policies.

This is a bit like being given sailing tips by the captain of the Titanic. Lagarde was the finance minister in president Sarkozy's lamentable French administration who had been a spectator as the world's economy was crashed into recession by out of control bankers. She spent much of 2008 Gallically shrugging but offering nothing useful while Brown and Obama attempted to right the ship.

Now she presides over the single tool IMF, an organisation that assumes austerity is the solution to every economic problem facing any country across the globe.

But even her economists - those in the organisation who actually understand how these things work - have given Osborne the thumbs down, arguing that he will not be able to balance the books if he sticks to his failed programme.

The FT agreed with those economists and this week even the Times has weighed in reminding people that it was the bankers who crashed the world economy and not the labour party.

Lagarde continues the IMF's proud tradition as summarised by Bruce Cockburn in his withering Call it Democracy:

Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor

Who rob life of its quality
Who render rage a necessity
By turning countries into labour camps
Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom

Sinister cynical instrument
Who makes the gun into a sacrament --
The only response to the deification
Of tyranny by so-called "developed" nations'
Idolatry of ideology

North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It's just spend a buck to make a buck
You don't really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello

And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy

See the loaded eyes of the children too
Trying to make the best of it the way kids do
One day you're going to rise from your habitual feast
To find yourself staring down the throat of the beast
They call the revolution

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

Enough said..?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

El Mundo De La Igelsia Primitiva: historia social

Well, how exciting. The postman brought me a package this morning containing a book with the above title - in other my The World of the Early Church but in Spanish.

It is being jointly published in the US for Spanish speaking Americans by Lion and Libros Desafio. This is really exciting as the market among Spanish speaking Americans is quite big (it's the USA's second language after English).

So hopefully more people will get to read it and enjoy the experience.

So that's English, Dutch and Spanish - what next?

Of course, if I were to write the book now, I'd probably say some things differently. But having looked at the English version again, I think it still stands as a good summary of what NT scholars are saying about the historical and cultural context of the earliest Jesus followers.

If you haven't got your own copy yet then Manna books will sell you one (here). Or you can buy it from the beast (here) On the Amazon site there are a pleasing number of five star reviews from both the UK and US.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Great new English music

I was sent a link to some wonderful free music by the band Lex Lisbon - new to me but certainly worth checking out. And you can do that here.

11 strong tracks on the EP, get some scars, being given away for free - so go on, treat yourself. Their sound is an original and quirky mix of great harmonies, edgy guitars, sweeping keyboards and trumpet . The opening vocal on the title track grabs you by the ears and is followed by lovely chunky guitar and keys and a sweeping hook that you'll be humming all the way to the pub. Bullingdon Club sounds like they're channelling an English Bruce Springsteen, full of bluster and raw energy. The vocals on keep me wild are sublime and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when the trumpet joins the mix.

There's lots to love here; this is definitely a band to keep an eye on. I look forward to catching them live sometime this year.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

wisdom from unexpected places

Everyone has an opinion on the economy and its future. The trick is sorting the wheat from the chaff. I was surprised to read this in an interview in Saturday's Guardian with Crispin Odey, hedge fund king who manages £9bn of asset, who was giving his generally gloomy assessment of the weeks ahead,

'There is also a sense, Odey continues, that politics are moving faster than markets – as in Greece, where he sympathises with a country that no longer sees the point of continuing the “charade” of adding unpaid interest to an unpayable debt obligation. “It’s Leviticus. It’s the whole idea of jubilee,” he says. “Jubilee was every 50 years in Israel. All debts were written off because otherwise the financial economy strangled the real economy. God got it right.”'

You can read the whole interview here. It's striking not only for its gloomy tone but also for Odey's ability to take the long view of financial trends.

To hear a hedge fund manager calling for a jubilee and suggesting that 'God got it right' is as surprising as it is refreshing. It is not only right to point out that God's economics are better than ours, but also to assert that the financial economy strangles the real one. This is what's been happening for a generation; and we are still living in the fallout of when such arrangement crashes around our ears (as it did in 2008).

Truly wisdom is found in unexpected places!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A cautionary tale about someone's son

I've been pondering this story for a couple of days. It's been a bit stressful in our shelter but we had a good meeting with a senior council official on Wednesday - a pin-prick of light in a dark few days. I then read this story in the Guardian which reminded why I do this and keep shouting about the needs of those we serve through our little project.Then I got an email telling the story I am about to relate.

It concerns a guest of our shelter last year. He was a difficult person but had the prospect of getting his life together after a career as an alcoholic. The email I got was in response to a request for information as to his whereabouts. It told me he was back in prison, due to be released soonish, but he would get no support from the probation service because his sentence wasn't long enough, he'd get no support from the drug and alcohol service because they'd tried once, and the social worker who sent me the email was in the throes of securing an injunction to stop him returning to the one place that might give him sanctuary.

I confess I heard the sound of running water as I read it and pictured people queueing to wash their hands of this man.

Now the social worker might think he's doing the right thing in obtaining the injunction; the relationship between our former guest and the person said social worker is trying to protect is complicated and messy.But I wonder what the prospects are of a man coming out of prison with an alcohol problem, who hasn't worked for quite a long time and has nowhere to live.

It set me thinking about how the safety net we think exists for people like this is in tatters. Lots of hard-pressed people are trying to hold the line in a system that is chronically underfunded and under-staffed. But more than that, a system that is under-appreciated by tax payers - that's us. When I tell stories like this to members of my congregation they are deeply shocked that there is no help available for my friend. However low someone has fallen, there is a feeling that they should be helped to get back on their feet.

This man is someone's son, someone's brother, our neighbour, part of the community in which we live. Yet he's invisible to most of us and will probably be back in prison before the year's end, having committed a more serious offence because the only place offering bed and board is HMP wherever.

What's to be done?

Friday, February 06, 2015

A footnote to the previous post

My old economics teacher at school, George Stanlake, used to tell us that economics was the science of how resources are allocated in a society. That's true. But what you will notice about that definition is that it is very political (I suspect that was George's point, though I never saw it at the time!).

Economics has never been a pure science. It has always been as much a political tool as it is a method for understanding resource allocation.

Is this the reason why Christians have always disagreed on how the economy works, since economics is a footnote to the political stance that shapes the way we each see the world?


Distinctive voices on the economy

There was a flurry of conversation on twitter this morning among baptists about the economy. It arose in the wake of an excellent piece by Maurice Glassman in this week's Church Times (You can read that here). The question was asked whether baptists have anything to contribute to this debate.

Leaving aside the 'me-too' aspect of this, there is a fundamental question about whether any section of the church has a view of these matters. People talk about Catholic Social Teaching (capital letters and all), pointing to a centuries' long tradition of thought and reflection in this field. It might be churlish of me to point out that social teaching is different from, though it might include, economic thinking. But defining terms is quite important here. By economics I think we are talking about the way money is managed by individuals, companies and governments; how work is organised and rewarded; how manufacturing and trading take place; and, in our system, how capital relates to labour and the financial sector to the 'real' economy.

Anglicans published a book last month edited by John Sentamu and called On Rack or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain's Future. It contains some very good, though-provoking essays that could help churches inform their discussion of issues in the run-up to the election this year. In the book there's a good essay by Andrew Sentance, former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, who is currently economic adviser to PWC (the accountants who are today getting something of a drubbing from the Commons Public Accounts Committee!).

My feeling about his essay is that it reflects the views of Andrew Sentance (and there's nothing wrong with that) rather than the views of a 'tradition' that stretches back down the centuries. In particular he talks of three key principles that should guide our thinking: sustainable growth, shared prosperity and responsible business. In this, he is in the mainstream of economists in general and what he says invites careful thought - whatever our faith position - but makes no real claim to be distinctly Anglican or Christian.

It was suggested on twitter than we look for a baptist voice in this area. It was pointed out that we probably wouldn't have much to contribute. And there's some truth in that. But maybe a group of baptist economic thinkers would bring something distinctive to their thinking about  the economy derived from their distinctive theology of people and community. But pressed to say what that is, I would find myself floundering.

Last year, I wrote a booklet for Grove Books on Paul and Poverty reflecting on the apostle's distinctive ideas about issues that we would now call 'economic'. In particular, as a baptist who teaches New Testament to theological students, I would want to emphasise Paul's focus on equality among the people of God as an example to the wider society. Now, Andrew Sentance talks about growing inequality in the UK being a major issue facing our society today. He's dead right. But mechanisms for creating greater equality, beyond changes to the tax system, are largely lacking in his prescriptions for policy.

Is there room for a baptist reader in this area? The answer is probably 'yes'. But are there any baptists who could contribute to it? This brings us to the number of books that have been written by Christians of all hues about the economy over the past twenty or thirty years. It would be true to say that pretty much all of them reflect the view of the author rather than the tradition within which that author notionally sits.

I was going to come up with an exhaustive list but cannot think of too many at present. But here's a handful: Brian Griffiths wrote a trenchant defence of free markets from a Christian perspective (he was Margaret Thatcher's favourite economist); E. Philip Davis reflected on the economic crash  without talking about the jubilee which stands at the heart of a biblical understanding God dealing with debt (a fundamental cause of the crash); Jim Wallis weighed in with his astute analysis of the culture that gave rise to the crash; Peter Selby offered incisive reflections on the role of money in our culture. All these offer trenchant views but it's hard to fit any of them into a recognisable strand of Christian tradition; rather they each draw from the Bible and theology, as well as their understanding of economics (whatever strand of that 'science' they are wedded to) and create a unique view.

So, are there any Baptists out there working in the field of economics in universities, city institutions, think tanks or any other field of endeavour who are up for doing some baptist thinking on the economy? It would be really interesting to know...