Only Skin Deep? Belfast and BiH

Only Skin Deep? Belfast and BiH

As is so often the case, I must caveat this post. My understanding of Northern Ireland is, like my understanding of Bosnia-Herzegovina, partial at best. But I believe we do not address problems by keeping silent. As always, I welcome feedback, especially from people better informed than myself. 

Recently, I was able to spend a few days in Belfast for work. While there, I was able to take some time to explore the city. Far too little time learn what life is really like there, but nonetheless I was struck by similarities between how Belfast and Mostar, a city I visited back in 2014, have addressed the divisions which led them to internecine sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

One thing which stood out while I was in Mostar was the number of buildings which had not been rebuilt after the Bosnia War came to an end in 1995. While the west side of the city (the half which is ethnically Croat), has been largely rebuild, many buildings on the east (Bosniak) side remain in ruins. Walking through the city, you are constantly reminded of the conflict – in some places, you could be forgiven for forgetting it ended over 20 years ago.

You do not see buildings in ruins in Belfast. No walls are marked with bullet holes. The longer, less intensive nature of the Troubles perhaps left less massive destruction than the siege and counter-siege of Mostar in the Bosnia War, and the UK was far better resourced to rebuild afterwards than was Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nonetheless, physical reminders of the war remain. Walking down Falls road or Shankill road, you see murals emphasising local Unionist or Republican identity, through depictions of key figures from the Troubles (and earlier history), military symbols, and slogans like “prepared for peace, ready for war”. In other places, the colour of the kerbs marks out local sentiment.

The nature of the reminders are different between Belfast and Mostar, yet both force recollection of a painful past; they prevent wounds from properly healing. They normalise the idea of conflict, entrenching ideological differences.

Worse still, in both Belfast and Mostar, the two side are physically divided from one another.

As a result of the 1992-95 war, the vast majority of Bosniaks live on the east side of Mostar city, while most Croats live on the west. Between the two lies the main North-south road and the river, a no-man’s land over which civilians were forced, under threat of snipers, in order to make the two sides homogenous. The divides in Belfast are less clear cut, with pockets of Republican or  Unionist affiliation spread across the city, but those pockets are often homogenous, and physically divided from each other by ‘peace lines’, walls and fences often 6 meters high or more, which exist to prevent violence.

These divisions do not seem to be going away. Despite a stated goal of the devolved administration in Belfast being the removal of all peace lines by 2023, the number of peace lines has actually risen since 1998, and many residents feel they provide security. With no devolved government in Northern Ireland at present, the chances of the 2023 target being met look slim.

Again, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, young people from different ethnicities attend schools separately, and are taught different curriculums, giving them little or no opportunities to interact across ethnic boundaries. The divisions in Belfast are not set in stone as they are in BiH, but the majority of young people from Republican communities attend schools run by the Catholic Church, while most Unionist children attend state schools; just 7% of children attend integrated schools.

It seems to me that, rather than committing to the painful, risky business of building peace, both Belfast and Mostar have instead opted simply to prevent any kind of contact which could lead to a breakout of hostilities. Given the harrowing events of the war in Bosnia, and the intractable nature of the Troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising that both countries focussed on armistice, rather than trying to address the underlying causes of the war. Yet this ‘safer’ path leaves open the possibility of a return to violence. It entrenches divisions, it prevents real reconciliation, and it passes the conflict on to the next generation.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught


Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

The centrality of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection

The salvation of creation, through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining tenet of Christianity. It is the most challenging, fascinating and vital part of our faith. Without it, Christianity is a moral code, based on the teachings of an itinerant preacher. But a moral code does not a way of living make. A moral code is not the foundation of a transformative faith.

No, it is through the decision of God to be man, to die and to make new life of that death, that we are made new. Our faith, our lives as Christians are rooted in the Great Three Days. That is the still point of the turning world. The atonement is the eucatastrophe of humanity.

This transforming moment is beyond comprehending – it is the working out of the Divine Will on earth. Yet it is also fundamentally important – because it is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. So we try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

The injustice and lovelessness of atonement theologies

Theologies of the atonement range hugely. At one extreme, Penal Substitution holds that the sins of humanity are so severe that they demand the ultimate punishment. Eternal punishment is the just punishment for sin. Only through Christ standing in place of humanity to receive that punishment is the righteous anger of God satisfied, giving humanity the hope of salvation. Other variants on this theology hold that Christ’s death comes in place of human death to Satan, or that it somehow does God the honour which humanity has, through sin, failed to do.

Such a view, however, has many flaws. First, it implies a time before the debt was paid  – the language of debt and payment is inherently temporal. It follows that part of humanity is beyond the hope of salvation. This cannot be a moral choice of a God who is love.

This theology is also rooted in the deeply problematic concept of original sin. Christ’s death does not, it is held, automatically win humanity the right to eternal salvation. We still rely on either living a good, moral life, or on God’s grace (depending on your tradition). All Christ’s death wins is the possibility that we might not be eternally damned. It wins the hope of Glory, yet the means of grace is still necessary. If we do not hold that humanity is ‘fallen’, there is no justification for an act of atonement – God’s grace alone would be sufficient.

Worse still, this atonement theology is rooted in an idea of justice, or worse of wrath and appeasement, which ignores the role of love altogether. To forgive without demanding reparations is surely a greater act of love than to demand the payment owed. Surely the divine love must be able to encompass such infinite generosity? Indeed, Christ shows that God can make sins as nothing, and not demand the punishment required by the law: Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Is that not the definition of grace?

Indeed, if we are made free, then human failure is an inevitable result of our humanity. Only the Divine can meet divine standards. To be human is to fall short of the Glory of God. How, then, could God demand punishment for what is the essential fact of how we are made by Him – our imperfection? To condemn, to demand retribution, would be neither just not loving.

The deficiency of moral influence

At the other extreme, Christ’s willing death for sins committed not by Him, but by the world, can be seen as the ultimate moral exemplar, an example of what the Divine nature is, and what we should choose to be. Christ died, not to change our relationship with God, or to win us the chance of salvation, but to show us how to live.

Yet this moral influence theory seems to fall into the trap of ignoring the vital (in all senses of the word) importance of the crucifixion and resurrection. There must be something more to this moment than a mere exemplar, or exposition of God’s love for us. Something bigger must have happened.

The timelessness of God, incarnate in time

God is eternal and unchanging. To be otherwise would fall short of perfection. Again, God must be outside time, which He created. God cannot create Godself, so He cannot be bounded by time. Nor can He change, as it is the passage of time, of before and after alone, which allows for change. To God, there is no before or after; no before or after creation, no before or after incarnation.

“Thou art always the Selfsame and thy years shall have no end.” Thy years neither go nor come… All Thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding… Thy “today” yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity.

– Augustine, Confessions

Yet, this leaves God cut off from His world. While God experiences all existence as God, it is only through Christ that God is able to be human. The incarnation anchors God in time. Through the crucifixion, Christ lives out human suffering. Through the resurrection, He embodies human joy.

The choice of incarnation

And this is the heart of it. Through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God gives Godself to die. It is true that in this moment, we see God’s love for us enacted, as the moral influence view holds. But more than that, through the incarnation, which is eternally present to God, God continually makes the active choice to be part of the world and to inhabit our suffering and our joy. This is not simply a revelation of God’s nature, it is a fundamental part of His being.

What makes Christ’s death and resurrection so vital then, is that it changes our relationship to God. It does not do this by paying the price for our sins and satisfying divine justice, nor by simply helping us see what God is like. It does this by defining what it is to be God, altering God’s very being compared to a conceivable god which is not incarnate, or compared to the partial knowledge of what it is to be God which humanity held before we experienced the incarnation of Christ in time.

God is the god who chooses to share in the very worst of what it is to be human. It is played out, in its ultimate form, in Calvary. It breaks His heart, as it does ours. And it goes on.

Our relationship with the Divine is rooted in who we are, and in who God is. It is at the still point of God’s cross that we meet in the dance.

Between time and eternity
nothing was fixed.
One gaped at the other
across an unbridgeable void…

…nothing was fixed
until a workman took
a hammer and a wrist
and with one whack nailed down
eternity screaming into time.

Godfrey Rust

The worst thing you have ever done

Think of the worst thing you have ever done.

It’s not a nice thought, is it?

Well, don’t worry, you are more than that. Like everybody, you have made mistakes, but you have also done amazing things. As Sr. Helen Prejean says, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives”. I do not believe anyone should be judged solely on their darkest moments, on their worst failings, but on the sum of their life.

So when I saw this image doing the rounds among Labour voting friends on Facebook the other day, I felt deeply uncomfortable.

We know, with hindsight, that the Iraq War was misinformed and unjustified. We know that Tony Blair ‘sexed up’ evidence in order to convince the country to back a war which turned Iraq into a failed state. Even at the time, many people were not persuaded by the case for war.

It is right that Tony Blair be held accountable for his part in the whole sorry affair. I do not doubt he holds himself responsible for what has followed. It is right that we learn lessons from Iraq (though I would argue we have now turned to far the other way, heeding only the lessons from Iraq, and ignoring lessons from Bosnia, from Sierra Leone, from Rwanda).

But it is not right that the good which Tony Blair’s government achieved be soured by this failing. From the Northern Ireland peace process, through to the national minimum wage, the Labour Government which closed the 20th century achieved a great deal which was positive.

What’s more, the legacy of Iraq should not mean that everything Mr Blair and his senior team say should be decried as falsehood and self-interest. If people have experience and knowledge, they are worth listening to, at least so you can work out why they are wrong.

So please, stop with the vilification. It simply serves to sour public debate further. Everybody deserves a chance at atonement.

People are more than the worst thing they have ever done.

It’s not the scandal…

It’s not the scandal…

As some of you will know, for a couple of years after leaving university, I was a volunteer at an Oxfam Bookshop. Oxfam has the scale and capacity to provide the kind of aid which has one, fundamental aim – to save lives in the most desperate situations – making it, in my view, one of the most important charities operating today. For similar reasons, I have helped with collections run by Christian Aid, I have volunteered in Ghana, and I have written about the importance of overseas aid here before.

I know where I stand – my position is clear.

So I have been saddened to learn that staff working for some of our most important charities have been accused of taking advantage of their positions, and of the vulnerable people they should be working to help.

But I will be much more saddened should this scandal be used to attack the principle of international aid.

While I know nothing of the particular accusations, I was not shocked by the revelation. Recent years have seen similar accusations levelled against individuals in almost every institution, from churches and the BBC, for schools, to Parliament. And every institution has failed to properly respond. But that doesn’t mean we have cut funding for the BBC, or education. We still have a government, and people still believe in God.

Some people are deeply flawed, and choose to do appalling things. It is, therefore, not hard to believe that such individuals, when put in chaotic situations with little oversight (the sorts of situations where most aid work takes place), and given charge over vulnerable people, would abuse that power.

Nor, perhaps, should we be surprised that organisations which rely in large part on public generosity and good-will in order to carry out their work, attempt to avoid scandals. Bad press is one of the most significant risks facing charities, and will undermine their capacity to help other people.

Of course, we rightly expect charities to set and meet exhaustive standards. We know that aid organisations are working with people who are already vulnerable, and should do everything possible to ensure those people are not taken abused, but are supported. That is their fundamental mission. Again, to justify their privileged position, aid organisations funded by public generosity must be open and transparent.

It appears that charities have not met these high standards, either in terms of ensuring that every vulnerable person in their care is protected, and in acting quickly and openly when failings are discovered.

It is this second failing which may have the greater impact on international development work; “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”. We have already seen significant negative backlash from across a media landscape which is broadly opposed to the UK’s foreign aid spending. The International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, has stated that “any organisation that does not live up to [DFID’s] high standards on safeguarding and protection” will lose funding.

Cutting funding to major charities will not stop people abusing positions of power across society – they will simply move elsewhere. Instead, the ultimate victims of such actions would be the vulnerable people in need of help.

These charities have the infrastructure and experience to make a real difference in some of the worst situations imaginable. Smaller charities might have higher safeguarding policies, but they will lack the capacity to respond to the next natural disaster or refugee crisis. The best way for charities to make amends for their failings will be for them to keep doing what they do to ever higher standards.

Worse still in scale would be if these revelations are weaponised by those who oppose the UK’s commitment to overseas aid. Even if you believe that specific charities ought to be punished for their failings, that does not undermine principle that we should help those most in need, wherever they happen to live. The UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP reaps huge benefits, helping to bring stability around the world, enhance the global economy and boost UK soft power.

I can but hope that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water.


I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

Yesterday, I was embedded in two of the greatest works of culture to come out of the USA in modern times. Both set a high bar, for quality, emotional clout, and contemporary significance. And both remind me that, if I want to make a difference, I have to be in the room.

*************************HERE BE SPOILERS************************

In the morning, I found myself watching Two Cathedrals, probably the greatest episode of the greatest ensemble TV shows every produced – the show that set the bar – The West Wing.

In Two Cathedrals, President Bartlet struggles with the decision as to whether or not he will run for a second term in office. He is riven by insecurity, distraught at the loss of one of his oldest friends, uncertain about his own future, and trying to deal with an international crisis.

As the episode reaches its climax, against the strains of The Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, President Bartlet reaches his decision. But to get there, he takes himself through the numbers: children have a one in five chance of being born into poverty, 44 million Americans don’t have health insurance, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men under 35, 3 million Americans behind bars, 5 million American Drug Addicts. He knows exactly what is at stake, or rather who – because he is dealing with people’s lives – and he knows that he can do something about it.

In the evening, I moved forward 20 years in production, and back two centuries in subject, to the founding of the USA, and the incomparable musical Hamilton, undoubtedly the best musical I have ever seen. (Buy the Cast Recording, buy the Mixtape, see the show in New York or London if you can, I cannot emphasise this enough.)

If you don’t know about Hamilton, I can only assume you have been living under a log. But to summarise, it follows the life and fortunes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, the orphaned son of a mixed-race relationship, who was born in the Caribbean and emigrated to what would become the USA, and rose to become the fledgling nation’s first treasury secretary and a key figure among the American founding fathers. His rise was truly meteoric, and owed a great deal both to his towering intellect (shared with The West Wing’s President Bartlet), and his remarkable ambition.

Hamilton also, like President Bartlet, recognises that decisions are made by those who show up, and takes the decision to prioritise serving the nation, even when it comes at a cost to his relationships. He pushes through a plan for a new central bank, though it means abandoning his family. He longs to fight in the American War of Independence, despite the wishes of his wife. He endorses his enemy, over an old friend who he believes lacks the principles needed to lead the country.

There is a great deal I could go in to about either of these shows, yet watching them in the same day, the key thing which hit me (apart from how utterly fantastic they both are), is this one similarity. Both take the decision to do all they can to better shape their nation; to be in the room where it happens. Hamilton will not throw away his shot. Bartlet for America.

Of course, both have platforms – Bartlet is President, Hamilton, is George Washington’s right-hand man, yet both get there through hard work. The world has changed, even since the early 2000’s. Where once getting the platform was the challenge, now anyone can have a platform. Information is democratised. The challenge, now, is to say something interesting. To make your voice heard. And that is something I haven’t nailed yet.

Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered his latest Budget. It was gloomy reading, with dreadful OBR productivity growth forecasts meaning that households face continued wage squeezes and that the austerity will continue to haunt politics.

Many announcements in the budget seem aimed at addressing this low productivity over the longer term; expanding the National Productivity Investment Fund, further investment in T-Levels (not due to exist as a qualification until the end of this decade) and a funding boost for schools teaching A-Level maths. Any one of these could be argued as a plank in creating a high-tech, high skilled and high wage economy in the future (though taken together, it is hard to argue that they go far enough).

What strikes me most about this budget, however, it that it does not seem to consider the importance of a sustainable future. High tech jobs might be a good thing, but on a planet with finite resources, it is increasingly clear that the economy of the future must be low impact. This budget has done almost nothing to encourage sustainable growth, or to address environmental challenges.

Instead, we have a politics of appeasement. For example, fuel duty remains frozen at 2010 levels, while taxes on economy flights and new diesel HGVs are also frozen. Policies like this are popular with the electorate, particularly those who are less well off, and can be presented as the Government supporting ‘hard working families’. Yet they feed into damaging patterns of behaviour, which are not sustainable. If there is a to be a focus on transport investment, to ‘get Britain moving’, it should surely be on mass public transport – busses and rail infrastructure, which is far less harmful to the environment. The Government prioritises driverless cars, when it should be looking at a carless future.

Bizarrely, targeted investment to address congestion and a focus on support for electric cars, both of which feature in the budget, demonstrate that the Government knows cars are a problem. Air pollution, particularly in big cities, is now a common complaint, with London implementing the T Charge, and Oxford taking steps to ban cars from the city centre. Yet the Government is wedded to the idea that everyone should drive as an ideal, they should just drive less damaging cars on better roads.

Faced with such criticism, the Government might point to the introduction of the new 26-30 railcard as evidence of a commitment to public transport. Yet here again the policy does not go far enough, because the railcard (once it has been negotiated with the rail companies), will only apply to off-peak travel, thus making it next to useless for commuters. Further (much like current housing policy), the focus is on the demand side, rather than the supply. To make rail travel a more appealing option, substantial investment in the network and stock is needed. More, and more pleasant services will in turn encourage increased demand, which should (in a healthy market place) push down prices for travellers.

Beyond transport, Government also seems unwilling to use the levers at its disposal to build a sustainable future. The introduction of a five pence charge for single-use carrier bags in England (following an example set in the other home nations), led to an 85% reduction in the use of such bags in the first six months of the charge. Alongside this positive change in consumer behaviour, and has raised significant sums for charities and community groups. Yet despite this positive evidence, there was no commitment to take similar steps to alter behaviour, for example by charging for disposable hot drinks cups, or introducing a deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles – only a promise to consult on options.

One final point of condemnation for this budget remains. We cannot ignore the elephant of Brexit, which will damage our ability to cooperate to address global climate change, not to mention mean the duplication of services and the creation of unnecessary infrastructure. This is a budget which meets the political needs of the Conservative Party above all else. The environmental needs of the country and the world can, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, ‘go whistle”.

Why we (try to) write

Why we (try to) write

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything of substance here. There are good reasons for that – I got a new job in January, which takes a fair part of my brain space, I have two London choirs taking up weekday evenings, there was an election, and I’m now chairing a small housing policy working group. But the biggest change happened in August, when I moved in with my partner. The move itself was time consuming, but more significantly, where once I shared a house with people, I now share a way of living. There is far less scope to simply sit with my own thoughts. And that’s no bad thing.

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that writing here is worthwhile. Because there is much which warrants writing.

I look around me, and see a country, a world in crisis. Half the population is having to face the reality of how it has systematically oppressed the other half. The UK is failing to deal with the largest non-military state action since de-colonisation, while ignoring domestic policy challenges which worsen by the day. Europe is beset by rising nationalism and xenophobia. In the Middle East and Far East, nuclear tensions grow, and the plight of insecure democracies in the global south continues to be ignored. All the while, the planet warms by year on year, threatening our very existence. No shortage of topics then.

And yet, I don’t for a second believe that what I write here will change anything. I don’t believe Theresa May will read my blog, and, as though struck by a bolt from the blue, abandon her disastrous pursuit of Brexit. I don’t believe that, sitting in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il will read this, and recognise that his attempts to secure nuclear ICBMs are undermining global stability, or that Donald Trump, won over by my flowing prose, will recommit to massive reductions in carbon emissions.

No, I do not write because I believe it will change the world. I am neither that egotistical nor that foolish. I write, because in doing so, I learn how to articulate my thoughts; indeed, I learn what my thoughts are. I learn to comprehend the world, and to shape my view. I write because writing changes me.

And if you want to change the world, there are worse places to start.